Thanks to Michael at Corr Sentencing for this piece on what can happen when a community takes control of a problem and doesn't rely on punitive corrections practices.
At first, there were only whispers. Mourners would gather in Charlestown's churches for funerals of the young, nodding solemnly - and knowingly - when told the family had a history of heart problems.
In truth, it was another death by heroin. As the drug seeped across the neighborhood, it caused dozens of overdoses, devastating hundreds of families. Starting in 2003, the signs of crisis were everywhere - the neighborhood parks that addicts colonized, the fast-food restaurants that locked their bathroom doors after finding discarded needles, and on one raw afternoon, the pizza parlor where Michael Charbonnier took his children. As the family settled into a booth, two men at another table pulled out a stash of heroin and prepared to shoot up.
"This wasn't a seedy bar," said Charbonnier, a Charlestown native and Boston police officer who tossed the men out. "This was a family restaurant at 2 o'clock in the afternoon on a Sunday. And I said: 'What has it come to here?' "
That same question was being asked in homes all across Charlestown, a 1-square-mile neighborhood where the newly- and near-wealthy dwell next to generational poverty. The response represented an unprecedented call to action - and showed that one of America's oldest neighborhoods still had the mettle to confront a deadly threat.
Amid a massive effort that began in 2004, drug overdoses in Charlestown have plummeted by two-thirds this year compared with 2003. There has not been a single death attributed to drugs so far in 2007. And a crime wave that peaked as heroin grabbed hold of Charlestown subsided.
Over the past four years, grand gestures and small measures have united Charlestown like never before. "It used to be every time I turned around, there was somebody getting high," said Shannon Lundin, a 28-year-old mother who survived a heroin overdose and has been sober for nearly four years. "Now, every time I turn around, there's somebody getting sober."
To appreciate where Charlestown is now, it is important to consider where it had recently been. At least 123 drug overdoses and 13 deaths were reported from 2003 through 2006, most attributed to heroin or OxyContin, a prescription painkiller, according to Police Department figures. In 1995, OxyContin began appearing in medicine cabinets nationwide. Soon enough, it made its way, illegally, onto the streets of Charlestown, foreshadowing the heroin epidemic.
"The problem with OxyContin," said police Captain Bernard O'Rourke, who for eight years has presided over the district that includes Charlestown, "is that people are falsely led to believe that it's safe because it's a pharmaceutical product."
In fact, the pills are highly addictive and steeply expensive. Users quickly develop a tolerance, requiring stronger doses to achieve the same high - and a daily habit easily becomes a $500-a-week proposition. Unable to afford such a pricey high, addicts in Charlestown turned to the drug they vowed they would never use: heroin, a drug plentiful and cheap, with a small baggy costing not much more than a six pack of beer.
There is a hierarchy in the world of drug addicts. Heroin is viewed as the narcotic of the desperate. It's bad enough to snort it. But to inject it is something else entirely, an act associated with dark alleys and sinister figures, as well as the spread of viruses that cause hepatitis C and AIDS.
For Lundin and a second recovering drug addict interviewed by the Globe, the descent from alcohol to OxyContin to heroin was swift and all-consuming. They stole and lied to support their habits, cycling in and out of detox programs, doing "horrible things," as the 22-year-old woman put it, speaking anonymously as she tries to rebuild her life.
"I didn't know how to do anything else but get high," Lundin said.The Police Department decided not to arrest its way out of Charlestown's problem. Making drug arrests is difficult, O'Rourke said, and, more crucially, does little to ameliorate the underlying problem. Addicts are still addicts after their court appearance, said the captain.
At the same time, the community embraced an ethos of treatment over punishment. "It was not a 'Just say no' campaign,' " said Beth Rosenshein, whose salary as coordinator of the Charlestown Substance Abuse Coalition is paid for by Mass. General.
The need became evident one gray afternoon last month as two young women greeted each other on Bunker Hill Street. Much as old friends might lament not getting into the college of their choice, one of them complained about how tough it was to get into drug rehab. "See," said Jack Kelly, liaison in Charlestown for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, "that's normal now as we sit here in 2007, to walk by and hear a conversation like that."