This article describes an epidemic that has hit not just Massachusetts, but many other parts of the country. Socialist Alternative pointed out in the perspectives document passed at our recent National Convention, “Across the board, the bottom 10% are now living significantly shorter lives than the top 10%. … This is unheard of anywhere in the advanced capitalist countries. A connected issue is the rising mortality among white Americans concentrated overwhelmingly among poorer sections of the white working class, due primarily to drug overdoses but also to suicides.” The failures of policy makers to address this epidemic is not unique to New England, but is simply one example of the interests the failure of capitalism to prioritize the health of our communities.
In 2014, then governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, declared the Heroin Epidemic a public health emergency. Since that time, overdoses from heroin and other opioids have only increased according to the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services.
Heroin use has long plagued various communities in Massachusetts, such as Springfield, Lowell, Lawrence, Holyoke, Fall River, New Bedford, Worcester, and Brockton. The problem has been a symptomatic result of the decline of these cities over the past twenty years. With economic conditions so bleak, some turn to sell drugs in order to make ends meet, others turn to their use to alleviate the stress associated with living in poverty. With the new visibility of the heroin epidemic due to its rise in white middle-class suburbia, there is growing attention to the concern.
Since the declaration of the public health emergency nearly two years ago, very little has been done to address the problem. In fact, in many cities epidemic has intensified. Amidst this public health emergency, On October 8, 2014, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh suddenly closed the bridge to Long Island due to its structural integrity leading to the immediate shutdown of the drug treatment programs at the Long Island Shelter. Over 700 homeless and detoxing people were displaced. “The Island” was home to the largest homeless shelter in the state, over two hundred detox beds, juvenile treatment programs, Project Stability, Opportunity, Achievement, and Recovery (Project SOAR) a program specifically for individuals with HIV, Wyman Community Reentry Program for men with substance abuse history and court involvement, and one of the only LGBTQ friendly shelters in the state. Residents were given four hours’ notice, some in mid detox, to vacate. Some were given temporary emergency shelter, many were left to fend for themselves in a city already short on detox beds.
On the campaign trail, Mayor Walsh spoke ad nauseum about his own struggles with addiction. Walsh has made claims of being a member of Alcoholics Anonymous ‘in good standing” for 20 years. In an interview he stated, “I don’t really care who knows I’m an alcoholic, because if it helps somebody else knowing that I’m an alcoholic, then they’ll ask me for help if they need it.” The cruelty of Walsh’s decision to limit access to treatment for addicts given his own personal struggles and how he spent so much time pandering to the recovery community, and just how quickly he turned his back on that community in a time of crisis.
Mayor Walsh’s propensity to fall in line with the interests of the corporate elite at the expense of poor and working class people, left some residents to speculate that the closure was perhaps more intimately related to the upcoming bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics in Boston. Three months later, a map was released showing that the Olympic bid committee, hoped to hold shooting events on Long Island.
Over a year later, many of the treatment beds have not been replaced. The city of Boston has opted for warehousing of the homeless diverting them into shelters that had previously existed and were already overcrowded. Heroin overdoses are the number one cause of death for the homeless in Boston.
Holyoke, a town north of Springfield, has been plagued with heroin use for well over a decade now and has been hit particularly hard in this recent epidemic; “help” has only come in the form of a militant policing. Holyoke has one of the highest rates of HIV and Hepatitis C infection in the state. A Massachusetts law passed in 1993 allowed for ten pilot needle-exchange programs across the state, contingent upon the approval of the city. Approval, however, was delayed until 2012. Holyoke was the sixth city since the law was passed to implement the program with approval by the local police chief and the mayor. Needle-exchanges have been proven to be effective in preventing the spread of infectious diseases and also helping to reduce the amount of time it takes an addict to seek treatment. Despite these facts, and against the interests of public health, Holyoke City Council decided to contest the Mayor’s authority to approve the needle-exchange. A judge ruled against the Mayor and ordered that the needle-exchange close its doors by July.
In Gloucester, the police have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of overdoses they have responded to in the past year, the amount of deaths resulting from overdoses have doubled. Police Chief Leonardo Campenello had grown tired of locking up addicts for possession. The town has decided to grant amnesty for heroin addicts who walk in, in search of treatment. Treatment is offered to addicts when they respond to an overdose. This practice is in sharp contrast with the practices in Boston. When responding to an overdose, the goal of the overdose unit is to interrogate the addict, interview witnesses, and to hunt down the dealers.
Senator Bernie Sanders has recently come out to say that, “addiction is a disease, not criminal activity.” The Democrat establishment has failed to respond to the public health emergency. We need a new party that will respond to the needs of public health, placing them above projects like the Olympics and corporate profits.