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Boston's Drug Epidemic IS a Crisis Situation

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino says the drug problem in Boston isn't at a crisis level. But, it is.

Two weeks ago, South Boston resident Barbara Coyne was killed in her own home. Last fall, Barbara Tagen, also from Southie and also in her 60’s, was killed. Police believe both attacks were drug-related. The response to these tragic events has been an outpouring of expression from residents telling tales of a neighborhood reeling from drug addiction and violent crimes committed as a result.

Not everyone seems to be taking the problem as seriously, unfortunately.

Boston Herald reporter Ted Fitzgerald asked Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino last week if the situation was “worse than usual”.  The Mayor responded that he couldn’t speak to “hearsay” and that he hadn’t seen any “actual numbers”.

Is it at a crisis level? 

“No, it’s not at a crisis level.”

“No, it isn’t a crisis situation.”

In the Mayor’s words:

“Well, we’re working, well, you know, huh, huh, you know we working, I think the cop - the police department did a great job bringing the guy, to arresting the individual, it took a week ... and we knew from the second day that we ... one individual … we had to put all the paperwork together, make sure we had the right person. I think what we’re doing is working with Senator Hart’s office to have a meeting Monday night; we’re sending some of our team out there to show you how aggressive we are on the issues of drugs and addiction and also prevention, but you know we have to … police and … outreach workers can’t do it alone, we need the community to help us, give us the information that’s out there to help us stop the ... if there’s a spread of drugs in the community … give us the information, tell us where they are and we’ll make the arrests.”

Problem solved!

Not a crisis?

I would never disagree with the Mayor (really, what would be the use?), but everyone but the Mayor says it is a “crisis situation”.

An “extremely serious” problem, said Senator Jack Hart, and Representative Nick Collins agreed, “I think we are at a crisis point.” Ex-Boston Mayor Ray Flynn told WBGH-TV’s Emily Rooney on Greater Boston that it’s at a “crisis” level, and he would know crisis!

And, it's not just in South Boston - not by a long shot. All the downtown Boston neighborhoods are suffering.

You see the effects of drug and alcohol addiction on the Boston Common, in Blackstone Square, in Copley and Andrew squares, at North Station, inside the Boston Public Library, in Downtown Crossing, at South Station, outside the Pine Street Inn and Saint Francis House, and at every Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, CVS, and 7-Eleven.

If what’s going on in Everett Square in Dorchester doesn’t make you a believer (“These folks are having sex on my property, defecating on my front porch, shooting up and using my outdoor spigots to fill up their buckets [to wash windows with]” says one neighbor), nothing will.

I’m no expert on drugs and crime, but from what I’ve read (and seen, first-hand), we are definitely facing a “crisis”. What would be a crisis in the mind of the Mayor - a third murder in South Boston? A stabbing on the Boston Common? A shooting on Chesterfield Street in Hyde Park?

Boston’s drug epidemic

The statistics on drug addiction in Boston and in Massachusetts are just astounding. Opioid-related deaths have skyrocketed over the past 20 years. In 2010, opiates-related overdoses exceeded motor vehicle deaths in the Commonwealth. There are as many as two deaths per day in Massachusetts from drug overdoses (708 deaths in 2008). (In comparison, this exceeds annual deaths due to HIV/AIDS in the Commonwealth in all but four of the past 29 years.)

Heroin has been the most-prevalent drug leading to treatment admissions (with alcohol running a close second), followed by non-heroin opiates, like oxycodone. Experts say that abusers start on drugs like OxyContin first, then trade "down" to heroin when they run out of money to buy their pills. This means that many of those entering treatment are suffering from long-term addictions.

Mr. Mayor, this is a crisis, Code Red.

Beyond the Mayor’s words

This column isn’t about the Mayor’s choice of words, though - of course not. He’s not a dumb or ignorant man; he’s done so much for this city and has made it the safe place it is today for hundreds of thousands of residents.

But unfortunately, for him and for us, he blew it when answering the Herald reporter’s question. He comes off as if he knows nothing about the issue. “The neighborhood has to tell us,” and, “I haven’t heard anything,” do not give us comfort that someone is in charge.

Southie reacts

Monday night (April 30), there was a community meeting in South Boston where  Senator Hart, Representative Collins, City Councilors John Connolly and Bill Linehan, and other elected officials were present. Prominent was Boston police commissioner Ed Davis who gave an update on arrests in the neighborhood and promised more cops on the streets.

Dealing with the crimes is an integral part of the solution, but it doesn’t address the causes of the crimes - the actual disease. Barbara Coyne was killed in her own home and police arrested a neighbor who apparently knew her family. The family of the suspect in Barbara Tagen’s murder lived across the street. No number of police officers on bikes down Andrew Square is going to solve this problem!

The role of government

I know government can’t be responsible for fixing all of society’s problems, but our elected officials have “dropped the ball” on this - they’ve cut funding so that those who are “at risk” end up slipping further into addiction. Then they become a safety risk, to themselves and to others.

“The community has to tell us what’s going on … have [sic] to be our eyes and ears … we’re willing to work with them …,” says Mayor Menino.

The community is speaking up.

Is anyone listening?

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