HARWICH — While public awareness of the opioid crisis is better, there’s not much other positive news on that front, officials say.
“There’s not an awful lot of encouraging news,” Police Chief David Guillemette told the board of selectmen recently. The board had asked for an update on the problem in Harwich, and the chief said it continues to be a top concern.
“Our community here reflects the trends across the state,” he said. While the number of reported overdoses is fairly steady – 23 in 2015, 21 in 2016 and 25 last year – the number of deaths is declining. Four fatal overdoses were reported in 2015, with one each in 2016 and 2017, and one or two already this year, Guillemette said.
The decline in deaths is likely linked to the availability of Narcan, the overdose-reversing drug now stocked by police, firefighters, school nurses and even families of people with opioid addiction.
“Family members and friends are being educated about the availability and the use of Narcan,” which is often administered before first responders arrive, the chief said. “There’s a possibility that we do not always get informed of every overdose,” he said.
Harwich has taken a broad-based approach to the problem, Guillemette added.
“As a police department, we are painfully aware that we cannot fix this problem on our own,” he said. “We can’t arrest our way out of it.” Only working with a broad base of stakeholders can officials make progress, focusing on prevention, education and treatment in addition to law enforcement, he noted. While police have historically focused on the latter, they are now involved in all four areas.
The Harwich Police Department has a full-time officer assigned to the Cape Cod Drug Task Force, and he brings the department knowledge, information and resources. There have been some significant drug seizures in recent years as a result, the chief said. The department also has a patrol investigator assigned to street-level narcotics in Harwich alone, he said.
The department follows up with overdose survivors and has a strong relationship with Falmouth-based Gosnold Treatment Centers, and participates in support meetings for families of people with opioid addictions.
Eighty percent of opioid-addicted people who have had contact with the Harwich Police Department go into treatment, Guillemette said. The department’s drug investigators and school resource officers are also available to support drug education programs in the schools, he added.
Harwich Youth and Family Counselor Sheila House, who serves on the Barnstable County Regional Substance Abuse Council, said the vast majority of the money spent fighting the opioid crisis is still spent on law enforcement, with less than 1 percent devoted to prevention efforts. House said the schools have been carrying out a youth risk behavior survey every two years since 2014, with another one scheduled to be administered this fall. The survey reveals the number of young people who have tried drugs or who report regularly using them, but it also highlights other risky behaviors, like distracted driving.
House said the survey is also designed to reveal risk factors for dangerous behavior, like anxiety.
“And anxiety’s on the rise with kids,” she said. Next month, House will be hosting a screening of “Angst,” a 56-minute film and virtual reality experience that explores anxiety, its causes and effects, and what can be done about it.
Selectman Larry Ballantine said he’s glad that there is an open dialogue in the schools about difficult topics like substance abuse, and most recently, school violence.
“Obviously the last weeks have been tough on everyone,” Ballantine said, referring to the latest school shooting in Florida. Clear lines of communication between the schools and the broader community are key, though “it takes a lot of time and effort,” he said.
Selectman Don Howell asked whether fentanyl has become a problem in Harwich. Heroin, cocaine and even marijuana are sometimes laced with that powerful synthetic opioid, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
“Nobody’s quite sure what they’re taking when they’re buying illicit narcotics,” Harwich Police Det. Sgt. Robert Brackett told the board. “Unfortunately, that is one of the contributing factors to a lot of the overdoses,” he said. “They think they’re buying heroin,” and their street-level dealer might even think he’s selling heroin, but the product is arriving laced with fentanyl or its even more deadly relative, carfentanyl. Just handling these drugs can cause a fatal overdose, Brackett noted.
“We feel strongly about drug education,” he said. Brackett said he speaks to graduating high school seniors about the risk of opioids, and will continue to do what he can. But as police, “we’re not in a position to develop curriculum for drug education,” he said. “Providing healthy alternatives to the kids” is also important, Brackett said.
Selectman Jannell Brown said that, while Harwich voters are leaning away from allowing recreational marijuana retailers from setting up shop in town, Brewster has not done so. When there are licensed businesses where people can buy marijuana, officials need to decide what message to send to the public.
“Is it, ‘if you’re going to do it, go to the shop?’ or is it, ‘don’t do it at all?’” she said.
“I certainly have my own opinion on that,” Brackett said. He said it is important for parents to be honest with their children and explain the risks. But it’s also true that some parents need to be educated, “so they can properly give guidance to their own children,” he said. Some adults think back to their own experiences with marijuana and other drugs and base their advice on that.
“They need to also realize that the substances today are not the same substances that they [used] when they, themselves were young,” Brackett said. There is also clear evidence that marijuana has different effects on the growing adolescent brain than it has on adults, he said.
Resident Steve Scannell challenged Guillemette’s assertion that police “can’t arrest our way out” of the problem.
“I think the town should take the stand that, yes, arrests should be made,” he said. People with opioid addiction are very expensive to society, he said. “Fiscally responsible people would opt for making the arrest,” he said. Drug users would benefit from jail time. By telling youngsters that drug addiction is a disease, “I think we’re sending these kids a terrible message,” Scannell said. “It’s a discipline issue.”
Brackett said that drug arrests happen regularly and continue to be important, but they are insufficient to solve the opioid crisis.
“Addiction is not a crime,” he said.