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Opioid Addiction is Fueling Overdose Deaths in Massachusetts

Dillon McClernon

Authored by Dillon McClernon

Opioid addiction is the leading cause of drug overdose deaths in Massachusetts. The state has seen a significant rise in opioid-related fatalities in recent years, largely driven by the availability of highly potent and addictive drugs like fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid many times more powerful than heroin or morphine. It is increasingly being cut into other drugs — such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and even legal pharmaceuticals — to increase their potency. This has greatly contributed to the opioid overdose rates in Massachusetts, which are nearly double the national average.

Up until 2012, the rate hovered just above the national average. But the gap widened considerably in the following years.

The Department of Health preliminary data reveals a dramatic increase in opioid-related overdose deaths from 2000, when there were only 375 deaths, to 2016, with 2,110 deaths. From there, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths plateaued until 2020, when there was a surge in deaths.

According to the state DPH, there were 2,301 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2021, a 9.4% increase over 2020. However, there was a 1.5% decrease in confirmed and estimated opioid-overdose deaths in the first nine months of 2022 compared to the same period in 2021.

Opioid Crisis in the US

The rise of fentanyl has presented the most dangerous phase of the US’s decade-long opioid epidemic leading to an uptick in overdose deaths and impeding efforts to end the epidemic. COVID-19 helped clear the way for fentanyl’s rise. With the strict protocols to limit contact and the lack of access to in-person treatment services due to mandated closures, many people with opioid addiction turned to the streets for drugs to cope with the pandemic.

The opioid crisis hit a record high post-pandemic, claiming the lives of over 80,000 people across the United States in 2021. Fentanyl was the leading cause of these overdoses, accounting for 88% of all opioid overdose deaths that year. And while fentanyl use has surged nationwide, the rise has been more pronounced in Massachusetts.

Why has the Problem Been Worsening in Massachusetts?

Various factors have contributed to the opioid crisis in Massachusetts. From socioeconomic disparities and overprescribing by doctors to regional effects and Northeast drug trafficking routes. Here are some of the key factors driving the opioid crisis in the state:

Fentanyl is Driving the Opioid-Overdose Crisis

Fentanyl is claiming the lives of people who abuse opioids and those who abuse meth, cocaine, marijuana, black-market Adderall, and other substances. The extremely potent drug was originally made to treat severe pain but is now being used recreationally. Drug dealers cut fentanyl into other drugs to increase their potency and profit, making it hard for people to know what they are taking.

The fact that fentanyl has infiltrated the market puts many unsuspecting users at risk of drug overdose deaths. Today, almost any drug can have fentanyl in it. Someone might think they’re buying marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or Adderall, but in a real sense, they’re buying 50 or 100% fentanyl. That explains why fentanyl is often present in overdose deaths involving cocaine, heroin, and other drugs.

Most New England states Have High Opioid-Related Death Rates

Opioid deaths in New England are among the highest in the nation, and Massachusetts is not an exemption. All 6 states in the region have opioid death rates that exceed the national average. Fentanyl is also common in the region.

According to statistics, 5 of 6 states in New England fall in the top 10 in fentanyl deaths. The remaining state is in the top 15. This suggests that the region generally faces a much deeper opioid problem than the rest of the nation.

Major Drug Trafficking Routes Pass Through Massachusetts

Massachusetts is a major Northeast drug trafficking route for heroin, fentanyl, and other drugs due to its proximity to the Canadian border. This has compounded the opioid crisis in the state and made it harder to contain. Drug traffickers from various countries use Massachusetts as a transit hub for their drugs destined for other states. This means that people in Massachusetts have easier access to drugs like fentanyl, even though they’re illegal.

Other Possible Contributors

Other factors that could be contributing to the opioid crisis in Massachusetts are:

  • Economic hardship
  • Overprescribing by doctors
  • Heroin use
  • COVID-19

While these factors certainly play a role in the opioid epidemic, they don’t show why the state has an opioid-related death rate twice the national average. However, it is important to note that the opioid crisis in Massachusetts is a product of multiple factors working together.

Addressing the Opioid Epidemic in Massachusetts

The Baker and Healey administration has made it a priority to address the opioid crisis in Massachusetts. From imposing the country’s first seven-day limit on new opioid prescriptions to expanding access to evidence-based treatment to filing the first lawsuit against the producers of opioids, there have been several efforts to combat the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts. The administration has also:

  • Signed a standing order expanding access to overdose reversal drug naloxone and medication-assisted treatment.
  • Brought the first claim against the owners of Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin. It also announced the national settlements against Walmart, Allergan, and Teva Pharmaceuticals, which contributed to the opioid crisis.

According to Baker, the pandemic exacerbated the drug abuse crisis. He, however, pointed out that everybody’s numbers look worse than before COVID-19 – and Massachusetts looks dramatically better than most.

Opioid Addiction Treatment in Massachusetts

The opioid crisis has had a serious public health crisis, leaving a trail of loss, suffering and despair. The good news is that several resources are available to help those affected by substance use disorders. These include inpatient and outpatient drug and alcohol rehabs, support groups, etc.

Recovery Centers of America is one of the leading addiction treatment centers in Massachusetts. We offer comprehensive, evidence-based programs to help those affected by substance use disorders achieve long-term sobriety. Our drug rehab programs are tailored to meet each client’s individual needs and are led by an experienced team of addiction counselors, therapists, and medical professionals. If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid addiction, contact us to get help today.

Authored by

Dillon McClernon

Dillon McClernon

Dillon currently serves as the Senior Director of Sales and Marketing at RCA. After his tenure as Chief Communications Officer and senior advisor to RCA, he opted for a full-time position at RCA where he could build a new team linking sales and marketing to directly impact RCA’s mission of saving 1 million lives.


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