Behind New England’s Mask, An Opioid Crisis Festers

Summering in Nantucket. Vineyard Vines. Hitting the slopes on Loon Mountain. Progressive politicians. The Ivy League. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft.

These are all images we associate with New England — especially after last year’s Super Bowl. But I can assure you, that’s just what you’re meant to see.

Lurking behind a facade of prestige and leisure are some of the states most affected in the nation by the opioid epidemic. New Hampshire, my home state, has the third highest drug overdose death rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Addiction in New Hampshire has reached such detrimental levels that President Donald J. Trump referred to the state as a “drug-infested den” last year in a Jan. 27 call with Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto.

Troublingly, New Hampshire is not the exception. The CDC labels Maine, Rhode Island and Massachusetts as three of the top 10 states for the highest drug overdose death rates. Connecticut is a close 11th. Those aforementioned pleasant images prevent people from remembering that much of New England has been ravaged by industrial decline, just like the Rust Belt.

Heroin, and opioids more broadly, trouble the identities of New Englanders. The region’s successful and comfortable front is antithetical to the reality of its overdose death rates. When I  attended a presentation on the opioid epidemic at my high school, at least a third of the attendees walked out before it was over. While the images of victims’ bodies could have been too much for my peers, some New Englanders deny the problem’s existence by more figuratively walking away from them. But the fact these New Englanders can walk back into their often gated, wealthy communities — the spaces that help construct the aforementioned facade — only exacerbates the issue.

But I don’t live in a gated community. People shoot up in the parking lot next to my house in New Hampshire. That reality is far more integral to my identity and the identities of those that live around me than the Boston Red Sox. The rest of New England needs to reckon with the fact that gate-closing isn’t a politically or socially neutral act; we must stop neglecting the poor communities that have been hit hardest by the crisis. When parts of New England with the resources to help those without them instead shut themselves off, they are complicit in extending the opioid crisis.

It’s important to note that the opioid crisis is not merely something unpleasant these communities shrug off, though, because that avoids the criminal stigma of drug abuse and addiction. University President Claire E. Sterk wrote a Jan. 18 opinion piece for CNN, in which she discusses this phenomenon, noting that “our cultural disposition is to initially place blame and responsibility solely on the afflicted — or addicted — individual,” which Sterk argued “leads to a disproportionate emphasis on criminalizing the behavior, rather than addressing it as a societal problem that we all must own.” That could not be more true in New England.

In the past, when New Englanders have taken approaches that avoid denying the problem and victim-blaming, their efforts have usually been productive. Gloucester, Mass., a blue-collar fishing town known for being the setting of the movie “The Perfect Storm,” has developed an amnesty program for opioid addicts. In 2015, former Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello started the Angel Program, which allowed the exchange of drugs for potentially life-saving treatment without the threat of arrest. Though his legacy will be mired by attempts to cover-up inappropriate conduct, Campanello’s initiative has been successful: After the first year, overdoses and drug arrests had declined despite broader state and national increases, and Gloucester’s program has since served as a model for the rest of the country.

By owning its faults, instead of hiding them, Gloucester’s actions saved lives. This strategy needs to be adopted regionally. Until the realities of addiction and overdose — as well as those of rehabilitation and recovery — are acknowledged alongside New England’s more pleasant cultural images, the region will not heal. The headline accompanying Sterk’s piece rings true for my community: “We should have made the opioid crisis OUR problem from the start.”

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