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Massachusetts Legal Community Responds To Opioid Addiction Epidemic

Mar 10, 2016 06:05PM ● By Ellen Wright

The opioid painkiller addiction epidemic in Massachusetts continues to rise despite the media and press attention it has received in recent months.  According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, opiod-related overdose death reported between 2012 and 2014 existed in 263 of out of 351 of the state's municipalities, or about 75%.  Sadly, statewide, 1,089 people, (or 16.5 per 100,000), were killed by opioids in 2014. 

Because of the euphoric side effects and associated withdrawal symptoms, these drugs have become increasingly sought after and are frequently sold by prescription holders to third parties.  Compounding this problem is the likelihood of "drug tolerance" which almost always results in the person needing to take higher doses of the opioid in order to achieve the same initial effect. Finally, opioid painkillers have been established to be the biggest risk factor in ultimately causing a heroin addiction.  

Although  initially used to treat acute, short-lasting pain from injury and longer-lasting pain from cancer, these medicines have been increasingly prescribed to treat chronic pain conditions, like arthritis, over the past 20 years.  In fact, four times as many prescription opioids were prescribed in 2015 in the United States than were prescribed in an average year in the 1990s.

Health officials are working to educate health care providers on safe prescribing, and are educating the public about the risks of opioid painkillers, but the legal community has also begun to play a role in fighting substance abuse. 

The Massachusetts Bar Association launched a free legal assistance pilot program in Norfolk county to help residents who are seeking court-ordered inpatient treatment for a friend or family member that is struggling with opiod or other substance addictions.  If successful, the program may also be adopted by Middlesex County in the coming months. 

Specifically, the program offers individuals help with Mass Gen. Laws Ch. 123 Section 35, more commonly known as "Section 35" which allows individuals to ask the courts to involuntarily commit substance abusers to an inpatient treatment facility if the abuse puts themselves or others in danger. Once "sectioned", an abuser can be sent to a treatment program for up to 90 days if a judge determines, following an evidentiary hearing, that there is a likelihood of serious harm to themselves or to others.  The program is the first of it's kind in Massachusetts and will be coordinated by a toll-free helpline.  The program and will be staffed by volunteer attorneys who will assist petitioners with drafting their "Section 35" petitions.  The attorneys may also make pro bono court appearances when deemend necessary. 

"Having a loved one 'sectioned' and forced into treatment is not an easy thing to do and often is viewed as a last resort to save someone's life.  No one should have to go through this alone, " stated Massachusetts Bar Association President Robert W. Harnais, who created the program.  "Our helpline ensures that for the first time, the people closest to the devastation cause by opioid addiction - the addict's friends and family members - have the support and legal help they need to navigate this powerful process."

More information concerning this initiative can be found on the Massachusetts Bar Association Website www.massbar.org/norfolkhelpline

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