Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation Tuesday making it a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison for trafficking the potent synthetic opiate fentanyl, which law enforcement has blamed for numerous overdose deaths. "We're not only talking a lot about this issue, but we're doing quite a bit," Baker said after signing the bill the passed the Legislature on the final day of formal sessions last week.
More comprehensive plans put forward by Baker and the Senate to address substance abuse prevention and education remain under review by the House, but the Legislature and governor did partner to put almost $28 million in new funding into treatment programs this fall. Attorney General Maura Healey, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan all attended the signing ceremony at the State House, pointing to the bill as a powerful tool to help law enforcement target those putting harmful drugs on the street. House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. John Fernandes, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and Rep. Tim Whelan, a former State Police officer, also attended.
Cathy Fennelly, whose 21-year-old son Paul Connolly died in February from an overdose, watched from the audience after helping bring the issue to the attention of public policy makers. DeLeo said he was at Winthrop High School earlier in the day where student athletes were going through a pain management seminar to help them avoid getting addicted to painkillers. During the program, DeLeo said the superintendent showed him a text about a young boy from the community who had just died from an overdose. "Our battle, our fight against substance abuse continues, and it's going to continue for some time," DeLeo said.
After the ceremony, Baker returned to his office for a meeting with basketball standout Chris Herren to discuss the opioid epidemic. Herren, who attended Durfee High School in Fall River and went on to play in the NBA for the Boston Celtics, has been a public face for addiction recovery, speaking around the country about his own struggles with substance abuse. Baker and Herren met on the campaign trail, and Baker said it was Herren who gave him the idea to use emergency rooms as a "pathway to treatment." That concept turned into Baker's proposal to allow doctors to hold patients admitted for substance abuse involuntarily for up to 72 hours to try to get them into treatment. "It's a milestone to get to this 72-hour hold," Herren said