Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

A Hill to Climb: Our Fight Against the Heroin Epidemic

July 08, 2015
| Summer 2015 Vol. 59 #3

Healey_Mauraby Attorney General Maura Healey

Special Feature

At the foundation of my campaign for Attorney General were the values I learned from the colleagues, mentors, and organizations I worked with throughout my legal career – a belief in the power and the possibility of the law, and of a lawyer’s work. When I was elected, I pledged to be the people’s lawyer. Today, my office stands ready to live up to that pledge and to fight for and protect all Massachusetts residents.

The issue front and center for me and my team right now is the opioid and heroin epidemic. It’s an unprecedented public health crisis unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Addiction is a disease that does not discriminate. It affects people from all walks of life.

Four out of five heroin users report having started with prescription drugs. Whether it’s the son of a high school football coach who injured his knee or the brother who broke his wrist while serving in the Navy, I’ve heard hundreds of stories from people struggling with this disease.

In a recent report, the Department of Public Health estimated that more than a thousand people in Massachusetts died from opiate-related overdoses in 2014 alone. This represents a 33 percent increase in overdose deaths in the Commonwealth since 2012.

My office is aggressively pursuing a multi-pronged approach to address this epidemic. We’re looking at all the practices that got us here – from pharmaceutical marketing, to overprescribing, to pharmacy dispensing, to insurance coverage.

We’re investigating sudden increases in the price of Narcan, a life-saving drug that stops overdoses, and recently worked with the Massachusetts Legislature to set up a Narcan bulk purchasing fund, so first responders can more affordably buy the drug.

We’re working to remove barriers to treatment and help ensure access to high quality care for opioid addiction. In April, we sued a drug treatment center we believe was seeking to profit off this epidemic by unlawfully charging MassHealth patients in cash for medication-assisted treatment. In May, we indicted a Hyannis doctor who we allege was illegally prescribing opioids to patients with known addictions. And we are currently in the middle of investigating several other medical practices for similar unlawful and fraudulent activity.

At the same time, we need real, meaningful reforms in the criminal justice system to address the fact that the vast majority of people appearing in our criminal courts and in our correctional facilities present with addiction and mental health challenges. Here a few of the reforms that I support.

It’s time to eliminate mandatory minimums for certain drug crimes. What some people need is a treatment bed, not a jail.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 80 percent of inmates in correctional facilities have substance abuse issues. Here in Massachusetts, the numbers appear to be just as high. The Suffolk County Sheriff reports that 85 percent of the inmates in his custody are committed for issues stemming from substance abuse.

Incarceration alone is not solving this epidemic, and it is very costly. We spend approximately $47,000 a year to house each inmate in our Department of Corrections.

My office is committed to engaging in conversations with stakeholders and the Legislature and will play an active role in the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission that was reestablished last year to evaluate sentencing structures.

I also support a thorough review of how Massachusetts currently spends its correctional dollars, with an eye toward keeping at-risk young people in school, investing in reentry programs and creating opportunities for job training.

We need to shift the lens by increasing our focus on prevention, intervention and treatment, reducing barriers for those coming out of correctional facilities, and updating our statutes to avoid disproportionate punishment. And we need to work together to address the disease of addiction.

As the people’s lawyer, there is no challenge too big or too complicated to take on. It is my duty to serve and protect the people of Massachusetts and I will do so by tackling this epidemic using all of the resources made available to me. I ask you to join me in this fight.


Maura Healey is the first new attorney general of Massachusetts in eight years. A former prosecutor in the Office of the Attorney General, Attorney General Healey served as Chief of the Civil Rights Division and directed the Public Protection & Advocacy Bureau and the Business & Labor Bureau. She is well known for her work in leading the nation’s first successful challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).