The national opioid epidemic spreads west, claiming lives in Pioneer Valley

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Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman '21


The U.S. is facing the most lethal opioid crisis in its history. Between 2002 and 2016, the number of deadly overdoses related to heroin increased by 533 percent nationwide, according to CNN. In Massachusetts alone, there were 1,501 confirmed opioid-related deaths last year, according to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the U.S. Department of Public Health estimates that there will be an additional 433 to 518 opioid-related deaths in the coming months. 

Although eastern Massachusetts has been notorious for the severity of its opioid crisis, western Massachusetts has also seen its share of devastation. In October of 2013, Eric L. Sinacori, a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was found dead in his off-campus apartment after a heroin overdose, according to the Amherst Bulletin. In Hampshire County, home to the Five College Consortium, there were 36 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2016, and the epidemic continues to take the lives of an average of five Massachusetts residents per day, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. 

Starting in the 1980s, the opioid epidemic spread due to doctors receiving approval from large, pharmaceutical companies to prescribe opioids for pain. Unfortunately, pain medications like OxyContin are both extremely addictive and expensive. When patients became addicted to painkillers, many flocked towards heroin as a substitute, as it was more affordable and readily available. This shift in drug use is widely considered the starting point of the opioid crisis. 

Managing pain relief while preventing future opioid abuse is a concern for doctors and patients alike. Caroline Castonguay ’20 said, “I know plenty of people who have been on morphine for the purpose of surgeries and so on. The problem is, some people legitimately need these drugs. The pain they’re experiencing is legitimate and to rob them of a drug that could ease it, I think, is inhumane.” 

These concerns are also shared by those in the medical community, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which includes pain management in their five priorities for alleviating the impact of the opioid crisis. The other priorities include improving access to treatment and recovery services, promoting use of overdose-reversing drugs, strengthening understanding of the epidemic through better public health surveillance and providing support for cutting edge research on pain and addiction.

The emergence of heroin’s synthetic relative, fentanyl, has recently become a leading cause of opioid-related deaths. Unlike heroin — which is derived from opium, a plant — fentanyl is made chemically in labs, and it’s up to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Oftentimes, heroin dealers will lace their products with fentanyl because it’s cheaper, more easily available and it makes the drug more addictive. Unfortunately, dealers don’t have dependable ways of measuring the amounts of fentanyl used. Due to this, dealers could accidentally use lethal doses of fentanyl in their products.

Opioids like heroin and fentanyl are extremely addictive because users experience unbearable withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking them, according to the US National Library of Medicine. Along with dependence comes higher tolerance — drug users will need to take larger doses of opioids consecutively to experience the same effect of their last high. 

Due to the severity of the epidemic, the Hadley Fire Department always has naloxone on hand. Naloxone, available as an injection or a nasal spray, is used as a treatment for opioid overdoses. It blocks or reverses the effects of opioids and is often carried by first responders. Opioid awareness campaigns continue throughout the region, and towns in Western Massachusetts have been doing work in the area of overdose prevention and treatment, as well as getting naloxone into the hands of friends and families of drug users.

Needle exchange programs continue to keep Hampshire County safe. Places such as Tapestry, a company that has been providing Western Massachusetts communities with confidential health care for over 40 years, have needle exchange programs, where drug users can acquire clean needles to prevent the spread of HIV. They offer confidential overdose prevention and education, syringe access and disposal, naloxone access and much more. These programs face backlash from many members of the community, with opposers’ main arguments rooted in the fear that these exchanges are fueling addictions. 

With the epidemic facing the Pioneer Valley, Castonguay also emphasized the importance of understanding why people begin taking opioids in the first place. “I think it’s very concerning how a doctor’s prescription can often be the gateway for a dependency on the drug and later, an addiction. In that vein, I think what’s most concerning is opioid crisis’ connection to the medical community.”