WORCESTER – In a crowded Worcester City Hall conference room, the former National Drug Czar Michael Botticelli told a group of healthcare professionals and treatment providers to “align yourself with Law Enforcement.”
Those words were met with a mix of bewilderment, skepticism and astonishment. This was certainly not the status quo of the socially conscious and caring individuals who take the lead in caring for our disenfranchised public.
For some, Mr. Botticelli’s words on that Aug. 22 afternoon would become a call to action. Dr. James DiReda, the Director of Social Work at Anna Maria College, saw the synergy and simple truth to the former Drug Czar’s statement.
Dr. DiReda and the administration at Anna Maria know that education, prevention, treatment, and government all play a vital role if we are to change our current experience regarding addiction to opiates and many other substance use disorders.
In response to that advice, Anna Maria College invited a group of diverse individuals, primarily from Law Enforcement to exchange ideas on the Opiate Epidemic in a Round Table Discussion on Wednesday, Sept. 20th.
Invited to the discussion were Worcester Police Chief Steve Sargent, Massachusetts District Court Judges Timothy Bibaud and Michael Allard-Madaus — both pioneers in Massachusetts Drug Courts, Worcester Public Schools Safety Director Robert Pezzella –a leader in drug education for the Worcester Public Schools, Worcester County District Attorney Joe Early’s office, represented by Liz Haddad, Worcester County Office of the Sheriff, represented by Joe D’Ambra and Shawn McKenna, Paul LaCava from Quinsigamond Community College, Dr. Mattie Castiel, Commissioner of Health and Human Services for the City of Worcester, Jack Maroney, a treatment provider and co-author of the East Side of Addiction, Jim Gorske, Director of the Adcare Educational Institute, and several Anna Maria College students.
Those gathered around the table know this public health emergency is important and made time in their demanding schedules to attend a two hour discussion about opiates and their impact on our community. They came to learn, to share, and to connect with colleagues, renewing their relationships and forming new ones to continue working to change the effects of opiates and addiction on our community.
The meeting began with a warm welcome from the President of Anna Maria College, Mary Lou Retelle — a strong supporter of this initiative. After the customary introductions and pleasantries over lunch, the conversation was guided by Dr. Christine Holmes and Dr. Judy Kenary into topics on workforce development, emphasizing the training students at Anna Maria receive in the disciplines of Nursing, Social Work, Psychology, Fire Science, and Criminal Justice.
The idea and need for the creation of a Center for Excellence in Addiction Studies was also discussed by those around the table in conjunction with attendees sharing what they are seeing and experiencing in their day to day world.
Real-time data from Worcester Police Chief Steve Sargent provided the starting point for a dialogue on the harsh realities of the current opioid epidemic. With tragic data in hand, the conversation of how pervasive the problem is in Worcester was illustrated as each agency representative shared their perspective of their daily interactions with those suffering from substance use disorders. The stress on manpower, resources, and morale were list toppers, with the unenviable task of informing the family of an overdose being the most difficult. The Chief did hint at several new initiatives and collaborations intended to improve outcomes and the overall safety of our community.
Judge Bibaud stated that we have been talking about this problem for a long while and it is now time for “doing.” Hard-hitting examples of successful court interventions and ensuing treatments that resulted in positive outcomes were provided, as many of the onetime defendants returned to the court to share their stories of recovery. These stories give us hope that we can change this terrible scourge on our society, robbing us of our most valuable resources, our children, but it will take all of us being involved, not simply one agency or organization.
Jack Maroney, offered this perspective: “Institutions of higher learning are an ideal location for prevention and treatment to intersect. The college setting offers unlimited opportunities for continued education, brief intervention and the social supports needed to maintain a sense of wellbeing.”
Rob Pezzella stressed the concern that providers and other professionals should have about the impact the new Recreational Marijuana Law is going to have on our youth in the city. The Worcester Public Schools statistics reveal that marijuana is the most common drug being used and abused by students. This gateway drug will now be viewed as socially acceptable because of its legality.
Paul LaCava and former Worcester Police Chief Ed Gardella believe that to make this change, people must first understand addiction and the recovery process. The community must start from the premise that an informed local citizenry equipped with the knowledge for identifying and responding to individuals in crisis and the ability to contact health and other community agencies trained to respond to these individuals in crisis is among the most powerful and empowering approaches.
It is this hope that allows the people at this Round Table to tirelessly revive an overdose victim and intervene with treatment without giving up. These dedicated public servants believe that human beings caught in the grip of drug use or addiction are worth saving, and do get better, and they know it.
Dr. DiReda reiterated, “Addiction is a condition that destroys relationships, and severs connection from community, co-workers, friends, families, and ultimately from self. Those suffering from addiction end up alone in their pain and misery, disconnected from those around them, including self, craving the only thing that will alleviate the pain; drugs.”