Thursday, December 17, 2015

Western Mass. heroin epidemic and Narcan touch UMass

Tim considers himself a casual drug user. He’s tried methamphetamines, and admits that he regularly uses cocaine and marijuana. Ever since September, however, he hasn’t touched any opiates.

After his experience reviving a friend with the anti-opiate drug Narcan in his off-campus apartment, the UMass student is hesitant to ever use heroin again.

“It was definitely the scariest moment of my life. A wake up call for sure,” says Tim, a 21-year-old junior.

According to Tim, he and his friend, who he only identified as another UMass Student, were shooting heroin intravenously. Tim was used to taking heroin in a pill form, and admits to using other opiates such as Percocet “on hundreds of occasions.” This was his first time shooting up, and it went horribly wrong.

“One second we were watching a movie and talking about girlfriends, and then I noticed his breathing got really weird. His eyes were really dilated and he stopped answering me. I knew exactly what was happening,” he said.

Tim knew his friend kept a dose of Narcan in the form of nasal spray in a worn, rasta-colored pouch where he typically kept his stashes. His friends mother had gotten it for him over the counter at a local CVS that month, after all other help she tried to get him failed.

The anti-opiate drug Naxolone, also known by the brand name Narcan, was essentially able to block the opioid receptors targeted by heroin and prescription painkillers, reversing the effect of his friends overdose.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 26,463 people reported to have used the drug in overdose reversals from 1996 through 2014. It has been so effective, that local municipalities have been arming their police officers and emergency medical technicians with it in order to keep the fatality rate down in the midst of Western Massachusetts’ heroin epidemic.

Even the UMass Campus Police Department received training the past two weeks with the anti-opiate. According to Deputy Chief Ian Cyr, the age demographic of the campus makes it’s community more prone to high-risk behavior in general. Given the recent spike in overdoses, the department decided it was a good idea to bring Narcan on proactively.

“Certainly from a police department standpoint we don’t condone the use of [opiates] and we certainly don’t condone the abuse and overdose of those drugs, but nationally we’re seeing a lot of success with the administering of Narcan, quickly, to counteract some of the opiate effects,” said Cyr.

Cyr believes taking these precautions are necessary, especially after the spike in overdose fatalities locally in the month of November.

According to Brendan Monahan, manager of public affairs for Baystate Medical Center, area hospitals typically see a few overdoses on a daily basis. However, during the period of Nov. 12 through Nov. 15, that number multiplied dramatically.

“We saw nearly 50 suspected overdoses throughout the Baystate health system. That includes Baystate Wing in Palmer, Baystate Mary Lane in Ware, Baystate Mddical Center in Springfield, and Baystate Noble in Westfield. That number is a drastic and alarming spike to see in one weekend,” Monahan added.

Cyr attributes that spike to a “bad batch” of heroin going around.

“But quite frankly, I don’t think there’s a good batch of heroin. There all equally as deadly. That’s like saying you have two bullets, but one of them isn’t as bad as the other. They’re both bullets, both capable of killing people,” said Cyr.

The UMass Police Department saw no overdoses during this time. In fact, the campus police department only deal with one or two heroin cases a semester, but Cyr explained that the opiate crisis does affect the campus.

“It’s so ridiculously cheap to get heroin, and where we don’t necessarily see a lot of heroin trafficking at the UMass campus or in the Amherst area, you only need to drive to Greenfield, Holyoke, or Springfield to get it,” said Cyr.

“Interstate 91 connects all of those cities. We’re all at risk,” he added.

Tim knows this from first hand experience.

“If I wanted to get heroin here it wouldn’t take me longer than two hours to find it. I don’t know a whole lot of users on campus, but I have connections who have connections. That’s how it works, and that’s how my friend has been able to continue to use heroin, even after being revived by Narcan,” he said.

“What’s so strange to me is that he’s the one who almost died, and he’s used since then. Being in that situation was enough to freak me out for a long time. I almost lost my friend in front of my eyes. After a lot of thinking about why this could be, it’s made me think a lot more about the way that mental health has such an affect on anyone who uses drugs,” Tim added.

Narcan use has been controversial because to some it is seen as an enabler to addicts. In fact, Monahan stated that many people who come into the emergency room with suspected overdoses have already been revived by the anti-opiate in the past.

“Narcan isn’t the answer. Curbing the behavior is the answer,” said Cyr.

Tim agrees.

“It’s tough, because without Narcan you’d see so many more overdose deaths. It’s a quick fix to keep someone alive in hopes that they’ll change their life around,” he said.

“Unfortunately you hear about it being more of just a way to return to the lifestyle.”

***For the privacy of my source, Tim's real name was not used in this story.

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