WHITMAN — While he sees it as a problem that’s not going away anytime soon, Police Chief Scott Benton has reported a slight improvement in the number of opioid overdoses in 2016 compared to the year before.
Benton reported to Selectmen on Tuesday, Jan. 24, that there were three fatal overdoses out of 41 in 2016, compared to seven fatalities out of 49 overdoses in 2015.
“Any stride that you can make in a positive way in that arena is a good thing,” he said. “The old saying goes you save one life …. Well, we saved more than one life compared to the year before.”
Overall call volume increased by 616 over the course of the year in 2016, with arrests, complaints and protective custodies about the same as in 2015. Traffic enforcement citations increased by about 300.
“I want to thank you for doing a comparison between last year and this year,” said Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski. “It helps to get things in perspective.”
Kowalski, who is also a member of the Whitman-Hanson Will anti-opioid effort, said he was glad to see some improvement from one year to the next.
“As you say it well, it’s not an eye-dropping change, but it’s a change,” he said.
“In the right direction, that’s for sure,” Benton agreed. “Now there’s a more comprehensive attack on the follow-ups and the reporting of overdoses in a more timely fashion.”
Lt. Daniel Connolly files overdose reports with East Bridgewater Police Chief Scott Allen, as part of the WEA drug task force, which are then followed up — a process the used to take up to two weeks. Now, those reports are filed within the hour and follow-ups with the families of overdose victims happen within a day.
Selectman Brian Bezanson said he was disappointed to hear that Gov. Charlie Baker was cutting the opioid enforcement effort by about $1.9 million in his budget proposal.
“It bothered me,” he said. “For me, it’s not the place to be cutting right now.”
“My only comment would be any cuts in that area … if anything, I’d want to hear we’re putting more money into it because any money to any of those components is vital,” Benton said. “That’s sad.”
Bezanson, however, lauded the Legislature for the proposals to fine-tune the recreational marijuana regulations since the success of ballot Question 4 last November.
“It’s cutting back the amount that folks can grow at home and when [the law] can roll out,” he said. “It’s going to be pushed way back.”
Benton said the Mass. Police Chiefs have been lobbying on behalf of the changes.
“This thing got passed and there was nobody thinking — on the recreational component — of what the ramifications were,” Benton said. He stressed medical grow facilities, such as the one Whitman Selectmen just voted to support, are regulated. “It’s your neighbor, that can grow 12 plants but is growing 36 and decides to extract it with butane and blows your house up and their house — that’s where the problem is going to come from.”
A ballot question in the annual Town Election would be the most direct way to address the retail marijuana issue, the chief said.
Benton also reported receiving a bulletin on a Colorado Supreme Court ruling regarding a medical marijuana case in which the court ruled that police may not return confiscated marijuana to a person who was found not guilty on drug trafficking charges. Colorado’s appeal was based on such a move being a violation of federal law.
“The court ruled that the federal Controlled Substances Act prohibits the distribution of marijuana, with limited exceptions,” Benton reported. “So, they found that the police department would be violating that [act] by giving it back.”
The chief also said he received a lot of positive feedback about the increased foot patrols in the center during the holiday shopping season.
Whitman police officers also held a “Stuff the Cruiser” event to benefit the Whitman Area Toy Drive — and filled three vehicles. The Department also took part in the active shooter drill at WHRHS on Dec. 27.
“Any time we can train together and learn together is a good thing,” Benton said.