Addiction to opioids has become a public health crisis in recent years, taking the lives of more than 1,000 Massachusetts residents in 2015 and upending the lives of thousands more. To fight the opioid epidemic, we need to expand access to all levels of treatment, eliminate the stigma surrounding addiction, take aggressive preventive action, and rethink the ways we manage pain.

Over the last few years, the state has made significant strides in those areas, but there’s still work to be done. Addicts in recovery often struggle to find work and secure stable housing, which dramatically increases their chances of relapsing. We need to improve employment and housing opportunities for people who are leaving treatment so that they can build successful, sober lives. It’s an issue that I’ll be working on over the next few years.

Expanding access to treatment

In 2014, the legislature and Governor Deval Patrick passed a bill that dramatically expanded access to substance use disorder treatment in Massachusetts. The legislation required insurance companies to cover up to 14 days of detoxification and stabilization services, guaranteeing that nobody is denied basic treatment just because their insurance doesn’t cover it.

That 2014 bill was hugely important, but we soon realized that 14 days isn’t long enough to set every patient on the path to a sustained recovery. That’s why the Senate recently passed a bill requiring coverage for an additional 16 days of treatment in transitional support services.  A 30-day period of care is far more likely to result in a successful recovery, which is why I’m still pushing for this requirement to become law.

We’ve also invested heavily in expanded access to treatment. In 2015, the legislature and Governor Baker dedicated an additional $27.8 million to substance use disorder treatment and prevention programs. We also helped equip more first responders with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone by creating a bulk purchasing program. Lowell received a $50,000 grant to purchase naloxone through the program.

Prevention efforts

In early 2016 the legislature passed a far-reaching substance use disorder prevention bill that will reduce the number of pills on the street by requiring pharmaceutical companies to launch drug take-back programs, limiting initial opioid prescriptions to a seven-day supply, and strengthening the Prescription Monitoring Program. It also requires prescribers to receive training on effective pain management and learn about the addiction risk of opioids before their licenses can be renewed.

Legislators have heard too many stories of high school students who were prescribed opioids after having their wisdom teeth removed, or after a sports-related injury, and later became addicted. That’s why the bill takes steps to prevent addiction among young people. It requires public schools to provide substance use disorder screening to middle and high school students, ensuring that at-risk youth are referred to treatment as soon as possible, and it mandates that schools distribute information on opioid addiction to high school athletes.

Opioids, substance use disorders, and the criminal justice system

Substance use disorders are primarily an issue of public health, so when an addict commits a drug-related offense, the most suitable remedy isn’t prison time. It’s treatment. That’s why I partnered with Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan to create the Lowell Drug Court, which marries the criminal justice system with the substance use treatment system, putting the needs of participants first. The court celebrated its first graduates in early 2016. I’m excited to see the impact it will have as it continues to grow.

Of course, there are some offenders—those who are trafficking deadly drugs—who must be met with the full force of the law. The legislature has supported law enforcement agencies in their efforts to disrupt drug rings and reduce the flow of opioids into the commonwealth. In late 2015, we passed a bill criminalizing the trafficking of fentanyl—a potent synthetic opioid linked to dozens of overdose deaths in Massachusetts. The legislation gives law enforcement an essential tool in its campaign to apprehend high-level drug offenders.