WOW! Fatal Drug Overdoses in Berkshire County Increased by 44% in 2020
In a recent interview with Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington, many topics were covered including a new report released by the Department of Public Health which found a sharp uptick in fatal drug overdoses across the state. According to Harrington, there was a 5% increase in 2020 across the commonwealth but in Berkshire County there was a staggering increase of 44%. Harrington said that in 2019, Berkshire County had 39 fatal overdoses and 56 in 2020.
Does the pandemic play a role in that sharp increase?
Harrington said the following (paraphrased):
Consulting with the Brien Center the answer is yes. The uptick is due to the stress of the pandemic and an interruption in people's normal community and support of mental health. People are very isolated and more people are using alone which is very dangerous.
Harrington's office along with local law enforcement are also seeing the stress from the pandemic is having real impact on people.
What does the D.A.'s office and their community teams need to do in order to reduce the number of fatal overdoses in the Berkshires?
Harrington answered by telling us that the purpose of the D.A.'s office is to support the idea of harm reduction. Harrington made the following statement:
Harm reduction is a whole school of thought that is based on research and evidence that we keep people safer and healthier in our community by supporting people where they're at in their addiction in that we don't stigmatize drug use. Criminalizing drug use really creates alot of stigma. We don't only support and help people that who are abstaining from drug use. So, harm reduction is about providing people with clean needles, providing people with Narcan, making sure that people aren't using alone. There's an organization called "Never Use Alone" that a number of people can call when they're using so they can alert the ambulance and EMT's in case somebody has an overdose. The research finds that when we treat people with this kind of respect, dignity and compassion, people tend to be healthier. I had the opportunity to visit Portugal which very much takes this approach and they had a terrible opioid crisis in the '90s. They were very successful in combating that by taking this kind of harm reduction approach.
Harrington mentioned that from her perspective, she and her team need to continue in getting people into treatment but her office and their teams also need to build up the public health response. Harrington said the following:
The Berkshire Opioid Prevention Collaborative does have alot of grant funding. There's alot in the works happening in our community. We need to keep pushing forward with this mission. There's Rural Recovery Resources run by Gary Pratt in south County now which is huge. There's alot of reason for hope, but for me, we know that we cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of this problem. My office does investigate the large scale drug dealers. People are coming from outside of this community and are selling drugs in our community. We have the law enforcement task force who's very effective in their investigations and charging people but we do know once we get one drug dealer, more come because it's a profitable business model.
Harrington's team created a new position in the office which is that of a prosecutor who will be handling drug court which works in conjunction with trial court and also the Diversion program.
Harrington included the following:
We're really going to be working to be more aggressive in identifying people who we think are appropriate for the drug court and identifying people who can get services in the community. I'm very excited about that position. We're hiring for that right now. I will say since I took office, the participation in the drug court has increased by two thirds and there's people that have gone through the drug court very successfully. It's a very rigorous program who otherwise...we could have prosecuted them and they could have gone to state prison but we want to see people get treatment because state prison is not a therapeutic environment.
You can contact the Berkshire District Attorney's Office by going here.