NORTH ADAMS -- As a recovering addict, Brandy Whipple knows how easy it is to obtain prescription drugs and how hard the road to recovery can be for those in the Berkshires.
Whipple shared her story, describing the desperation of an addict and the challenges faced by those trying to recover, during a forum on prescription drug abuse held by the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition on Friday at the First Baptist Church.
"For 15 years I was addicted to prescription drugs, beginning when I was 14 years old," she said. "I learned at a very young age how to ‘doctor shop.' I learned how to go from one doctor to another for a prescription. I had five doctors prescribing me the same medication over a seven-month period."
But recovery isn't easy, she said, pointing to six-hour waiting periods in local emergency rooms, transportation issues for those trying to attend detox and recovery programs in Pittsfield, and a lack of recovery information for addicts and families.
"When we ask for help, it's like surrender," she said. "You just want someone to take over and tell you what to do because you're at your wit's end."
Whipple is just one of the many recovering prescription drug addicts in Northern Berkshire, where abuse of prescribed opiates, depressants, stimulants and the street drug heroin has increased dramatically over the last 15 years.
"In 1996, there were 500,000 opiate doses filled in Berkshire County,"
Heroin use, in the wake of prescription drug abuse addiction, has "skyrocketed" during the same time period, she said.
"The big question we want to answer today is where do we, as a regional community, go from here?" she said.
Before trying to address the forum's major focus, the group of about 118 people heard from local social service agencies and law enforcement who deal with the issue on a daily basis.
"This is truly an epidemic," said North Adams Police Det. John LeClair, who also works with the Berkshire County Drug Task Force. "This isn't just something we see once a week. We're putting in hours and hours every week. What are we seeing? It is a cross section of our community. It isn't just our preconceived notions of drug users and this is where they live. This is our neighbors, our friends, our kids who are put up on pedestals -- kids who people think are never going to do anything wrong. They are the captains of our sports teams, our valedictorians."
Part of the problem is availability of prescription drugs on the street, he said. Addiction to prescription drugs most times leads to criminal activity, as the individual strives to pay for the drugs.
"Where does that money come from when you're unemployed or need to pay the bills?" LeClair asked. "Eventually it isn't about getting high; it's about not getting sick. Most of the time, people turn to crime. We just had a vacant house stripped of all its copper on Monday."
He said many addicts also turn to a much cheaper solution: Heroin. Heroin can turn a user into a dealer, as the addict finds selling to friends a viable means of supporting his or her own habit.
State Police Lt. Brian Foley, who works with the drug task force, said a major part of the problem is the push from big pharmaceutical companies for doctors to prescribe these types of drugs and an increase in area physicians and mental health practitioners readily handing out the prescriptions.
"We need them to slow down on the over-prescription of these drugs," he said. "They've already created this epidemic. This isn't the drug cartels. The ease of getting prescription drugs created the need for opiates. When that happened, the drug cartels started pumping in heroin."
Deborah Durant, director of emergency services at North Adams Regional Hospital, said physicians in her department do prescribe "a lot of pain medication," but are often bound to do so by federal regulations that require the staff to ask about pain levels. Federal reimbursements are also tied to patient satisfaction surveys, which include whether a patient's pain was treated to their satisfaction.
Cheryl Campbell, a program manager for the state Department of Health's Division of Health Care Safety and Quality, said that as of January 1, every doctor in the state will be required to cross-reference every new patient in a state-wide database to see if that patient is already being treated by another doctor. However, she said ensuring that doctors use the system isn't as easy as it sounds.
While those in attendance agreed there is no simple solution to the epidemic of drug abuse in North Berkshire, many had suggestions on how to curb the growing numbers.
Ideas included a "palm card" with a list of detox and recovery options, which isn't available to law enforcement or hospitals at this time; advocating for more beds in local recovery programs; volunteers to sit with addicts in emergency rooms; creating more community education opportunities about prescription abuse; and putting needle collection bins in places other than police stations.
"I think it's pretty clear there is no silver bullet, no one solution to these issues," state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, said. "The best thing to do is to continue the conversation. What can help me, in my world, and the Berkshire delegation is a list of what are the most pressing and priority needs. We can help by convening the actors at the table."
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email firstname.lastname@example.org.