A community forum in western Massachusetts today focused on how drug addiction affects crime in the region.
Roughly 50 people joined the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition forum at First Baptist Church in North Adams. Crime was heavily debated throughout the mayoral race in North Adams, the largest population center in North County. The city has been working with State Police and the Sheriff’s Office to increase police presence since June. Pointing out it has become a nationwide epidemic, local law enforcement and community leaders agree the cause of crime is drug abuse and addiction, specifically legally prescribed drugs. Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless was a panel member at the forum.
“Us as a society, and it’s being bought into by the medical community, we can find solutions for everything in one pill,” Capeless said. “For too many people that one pill has turned to addiction.”
Capeless says there has been a 600 percent increase in schedule-2 opioids being prescribed in the county over the past 18 years. He says that ends up being 29 doses for every person in the county.
“The whole dynamic has changed,” he explained. “You’re getting a whole class of people who are getting involved as abusers who never would have turned to this before. In turn, you’re getting a whole class of people who are turning to dealing in order sometimes to sustain it or just to make money.”
Massachusetts State Police Lieutenant Brian Foley commands the county’s Law Enforcement Task Force. He says increased police presence has led to more residents opening up about illegal activity in the area, which he says is both homegrown and driven by gangs from out of town.
“We’ve also had an increase of out of town gang members that came into the city,” Foley said. “There’s unacceptable, then there’s wicked unacceptable and that’s wicked unacceptable. If you want to come in from out of town and come into North Adams and think that you are going to set up your gang and you are going to make money by having that gang activity…we blew that up.”
North Adams Police Director Mike Cozzaglio also sat on the panel.
“Behind all of this is whether we take the drug dealers out of the system or we stop the people who are buying drugs,” Cozzaglio said. “Somehow get ahead of it and get the people who are buying drugs and try to educate them to not go to those drug dealers. So I think we are on that slippery slope that delicate balance of making that happen.”
Cozzaglio says theft of copper and other valued materials from homes and buildings has increased as people try to find ways to support their addiction. Jim Montepare is the superintendent of schools for North Adams. He says fewer afterschool programs may play a role in drug use among youth as funding has decreased and the district is operating on a smaller budget than in 2007.
“Idle hands they find something else to do,” Montepare said. “Some find good things to do, some find not so good things to do.”
Capeless says law enforcement is also focusing on the prescription drug supply.
“We’re also working with the medical community to try to educate doctors about the role that they’re playing in flaming the situation and making it worse,” Capeless said. “That they have to cut back on these prescriptions and they have to look to alternative methods to treat people.”
The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition offers risk management training for drug prescribers and holds prescription drug roundups twice a year. Lois Daunis is the Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator for the coalition.
“A big piece of it is the community education that will hopefully take the shame out of the disease and focus more on saving lives and getting people into recovery,” said Daunis.