A Wealth of Data: A Map of the Massachusetts Opioid Epidemic

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In 2016, the rate of opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts was more than double the national average (29.7 compared to 13.3 per 100,000 people). But Massachusetts doesn’t follow the usual trend for its users. Other states (like Alabama, Kentucky, and West Virginia) struggle hardest in rural communities, where increased availability and social networks make addiction easier. In Massachusetts, however, the opposite is true. Pioneer Institute mapped opioid deaths from 2000 to Quarter 1 of 2018, with data the State released in May 2018.  To see the legend in any of these maps, click the arrow in the upper left-hand corner.

 In these maps, normalized by population, rural Western Massachusetts is actually a cold spot for overdoses, whereas wealthier towns like Bridgewater and Middleboro are flagged for a high overdose death rate (39 and 41 deaths since 2000, respectively):

By mapping the relationship between income and opioid overdose deaths during this time period, we were able to identify both communities with a low overdose rate and income alongside communities with a higher overdose rate and income:

The national opioid epidemic is crippling Massachusetts towns and cities. Almost every place has suffered a loss, and the close nature of the Commonwealth’s communities means everyone is affected. The National Safety Council’s 2018 “Prescription Nation” report lists Massachusetts alongside 29 other states as “lagging behind” on six key actions necessary to end to the opioid crisis. The state has mandated prescriber education materials, enacted a prescription drug monitoring program, and made medicated opioid use disorder treatments available.

However, it still doesn’t provide full transparency around overdose deaths by detailing all the drugs present in an overdose (such as fentanyl, which is turning libraries and office complexes into biohazard zones). Naloxone, a drug which can reverse an opioid overdose, still requires a prescription at a pharmacy.  The state also hasn’t adopted the CDC Chronic Pain Guidelines regarding opiate prescriptions, which reduce the risk of addiction for chronic pain patients.

Massachusetts has worked hard to resolve the opioid crisis, but clearly has a long way to go. Wealth cannot protect a community from this epidemic, leaving proper support for the hardest hit communities as the only reasonable solution.

Kaila Webb is the Wellesley College Freedom Project’s intern for the Pioneer Institute. She is  currently double majoring in Environmental Studies and Chinese Language & Culture.