By Matthew M. Robare
A group called Saugus We Care has formed in response to increasing numbers of drug overdose deaths in the past several years. Cofounders Don Zollo and Alison Riley aim to make people aware of the drug problem in Saugus.
“I just kind of thought they were out of control,” Zollo said of the drug deaths, which reached five in ten days at one point. “Me and Alison really care about this kind of thing.”
Another group formed around the same time as Saugus We Care and with similar goals: the Saugus Anti-Drug Coalition. “Our goal is to get a prevention curriculum in the schools,” said Patty Goodwin. “Our main focus is awareness, but we want to get something in the schools.”
Zollo said that in 2010 there were 15 overdose deaths, 20 in 2011, and already 20 more in 2012. “The numbers are happening just as forecast,” he said.
“This is nothing new, actually,” said Greg Nickolas, director of the Saugus Youth and Recreation Department. “This has been an ongoing situation in the community.”
According to statistics available on the Saugus Youth and Recreation Department website, Saugus is either number one or number two in substance abuse admissions for treatment in the North Shore. The website describes the amount of drug use as a “frightening epidemic.” Between 2004 and 2008 Saugus had 1,542 admissions for heroin, compared to 843 in Lynn, which was the next highest. (Lynn has a population about three times as large as that of Saugus.) In that same period, there were 310 cocaine admissions and 153 marijuana admissions in Saugus.
“They were former Saugus citizens, but they were not in town,” Saugus Police Chief Domenic DiMella said of the overdose deaths.
“There’s no awareness, no public outrage,” Zollo said. “A lot of people don’t know Saugus has a drug problem.”
Nickolas became involved in the Youth and Recreation Department in 2004 while working as a case worker for Saugus Public Schools. “I was seeing it in the trenches,” he said. “It wasn’t a stereotypical group of kids engaging in those behaviors.”
He said that what was happening in Saugus mirrored what was happening at the state level. He added that the drug issue in Saugus goes back to the early 90s, before he became involved. Nickolas said that in 1992 a Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed that young people in Saugus engaged in high-risk behavior one-third more often than the national average. He said those numbers prompted the initial formation of the department, and preventing substance abuse remains a priority.
“They haven’t been comprehensive since I’ve been doing it,” Nickolas said of drug prevention efforts. “It’s not anyone’s particular fault—people are overwhelmed. It hasn’t been a priority. If it becomes a priority we can have an open, honest dialogue. A huge obstacle to be overcome is the town acknowledging it and owning it.”
Zollo, DiMella, and Nickolas all agreed that opium-derived drugs, which include both heroin and prescription pain medicines, are the most dangerous drugs and the most prevalent problem. According to a recent cover story in The Phoenix (Boston), “Nationwide, the opioid epidemic is out of control… New Englanders entered substance abuse treatment facilities in 2009 for opioids at a rate twice as high as the national average…”
“The most dangerous drug is heroin,” DiMella said.
Illegal opiates, like heroin, continue to play a major role in Massachusetts—according to the Boston Commission on Public Health, “Boston ranks higher than any other metropolitan area in the country for heroin mentions in emergency departments.” However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The increase in drug overdose death rates is largely because of prescription opioid painkillers.”
“The end goal is to get people aware of this so that people can go and get help,” Zollo said. “We want to reduce the number of overdoses drastically.” Zollo added that Saugus We Care would like to see the town government involved.
“The board certainly supports public education on drugs,” said Michael Serino, chairman of the Saugus board of selectmen. “Education is the key. The Youth and Recreation Department does a good job in trying to educate the kids on alcohol and drugs.”
“The drug problem is everywhere,” DiMella said. “It’s a societal problem. We’re not going to solve this problem without a balance of treatment, enforcement and education.”
“I try to resource people into recovery,” Nickolas said. “My emphasis has always been on prevention. The problem with this approach is that it’s piecemeal; it’s not comprehensive.”
This year town meeting reduced the Youth and Recreation Department’s budget from $122,478 to $65,831. The budget for drug prevention programs was reduced from $15,000 in 2011 to $10,000. There were also calls at town meeting to eliminate the department entirely.
“The board’s been supportive of Greg Nickolas,” Serino said.
“I’ve been watered down here,” Nickolas said. “The main premise of why I was hired was to address this issue, but I’m getting dumped on. Usually, the first things that get cut are non-essentials—my department. If you put preventative measures in place that are comprehensive, $1 invested in prevention saves $12-$14.”
He added that he attended a meeting in Chelsea at Roca—an organization involved in intervention for high-risk young people—involving Senator John Kerry and Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration’s director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. There, according to Nickolas, Kerry emphasized the importance of communities getting involved with dealing with substance abuse.
“I am not aware of anything that’s working,” Zollo said. “I don’t know of any plans in place that people know about.”
Goodwin said that the Anti-Drug Coalition had arranged for overdose prevention training with a drug called Narcan that counteracts opioid overdoses and can be administered as a nasal spray. “We had a training in October and it went really well. We’re having another one at the end of November at the Saugus-Everett Elks Lodge,” she said.
Nickolas said involving Saugus public schools is “critical.” While they do have an anti-drug curriculum, he said that it is still part of the piecemeal approach. Goodwin said that the Anti-Drug Coalition was aiming for a K-12 comprehensive program.
DiMella said that the Saugus police department has a drug task force and works with federal and state officials. He added that the department also works with the schools and the Youth and Recreation Department.
“I have an officer from my drug unit in the schools regularly giving drug talks,” DiMella said.
“Overdoses all started out as teenagers,” Nickolas said. “Raising awareness is critical. Intensifying existing resources and figuring out what we’re doing—we don’t have to be pioneers here. It’s not a school problem; it’s not a police problem; it’s not a government problem—it’s a community problem.”
“Everyone in this group has been troubled by this,” Goodwin said. “Along with raising awareness, we want to change the perception of addiction. Addiction affects every type of person. Addiction is everywhere, but nobody wants to talk about it because it’s shameful. Our aim is to get something in the schools, but it can’t just be in the schools. It’s a health problem. Everyone needs to be proactive in coming up with a solution.”
“We need to have an honest dialogue,” Nickolas said. “There’s a moral obligation to give kids and families a fighting chance. The leadership is restricted in what they can do, because they can only work with what they have.”
“This is a way for us to get better,” Zollo said. He added that Saugus We Care wants to be a “bridge to the resources.”
Nickolas said that he was in the process of organizing a summit meeting with other communities dealing with substance abuse problems. He hopes to find out what works and what doesn’t, so Saugus’ efforts can be more comprehensive than they have been.
“If they want to come to a meeting and meet with the board of selectmen, we’re open to suggestions,” Serino said of the two new groups.
Saugus We Care and the Saugus Anti-Drug Coalition both have Facebook pages that can be followed for information on upcoming meetings.