Early on in my first campaign for mayor, I realized I had to be open about my recovery from alcoholism. I had been working on addiction prevention and recovery issues for my entire 16 years in the State Legislature, and I knew I wanted to make it a priority for the city if I was elected. But my friends in the recovery community encouraged me to also tell my own story, as a way of breaking down stigma and bringing hope to people suffering from substance use disorders and their families. So I did, and the response was, and still is, profound. Connecting with people in recovery, talking to young people about their choices and their challenges, having people approach me quietly, after an event, about a struggling family member–these are among my most meaningful experiences as mayor. Wherever I go, whether I’m in Boston or I’m visiting mayors across the country, I rarely meet a family or a community that is not deeply affected by addiction.
With the opioid crisis taking lives and shattering families every day, this work has never been more important. In the City of Boston we’ve built one of the strongest recovery systems in the nation. We created the first municipal Office of Recovery Services, to improve access to treatment, reduce stigma, and support people in recovery. We turned our 311 call center into a 24-hour recovery hotline. We got lifesaving overdose prevention medicine into every police, fire, and EMS vehicle, and we trained tens of thousands of civilians in overdose prevention as well. We hired street outreach workers and created an Engagement Center to bring comfort and treatment options to one of the hardest-hit parts of our city. We created a recovery services toolkit to help other cities expand their work. And we’re planning a comprehensive, long-term recovery campus on Long Island in Boston Harbor that will bridge crucial gaps in treatment and support for the entire region.
We took another step last week, an important one. We filed suit against drug manufacturers and distributors who played a major role in creating and sustaining the opioid crisis, through years of misleading marketing and irresponsible practices. Simply put, they put profits ahead of people, knowingly fueling addiction at the expense of human lives.
Their actions have cost the City and its residents an enormous amount of money. It’s the constant emergency calls for overdoses and other addiction-driven crises every day and every night, year after year. And it’s more: our libraries have to handle drug use and overdoses; Parks and Recreation, Public Works, and Public Health staff clean up needles every day; schools are taking extra measures to support children affected by the presence of addiction in the home. The crisis touches every city department. In all, we calculate the City has spent over $64 million because of this epidemic just since 2014, in addition to the future costs the city will incur as the epidemic progresses. That’s money we could be putting into schools, parks, libraries, affordable housing—and recovery services.
But the ultimate costs are not financial, they are human. It’s lost joy, lost potential, and lost lives, along with frightened or grieving families. It’s kids missing their parents and parents missing their kids. These opioid manufacturers and distributors need to pay for their role in all this suffering, and they need to get the message that it can’t happen again. That’s why we’re moving forward with a lawsuit.
When we think about all that addiction has cost our neighbors and friends, it’s natural to be sad and angry.
But recovery is about hope—hope and joy and love.
September is Recovery Month. Among our many community events, we’re hosting a Recovery Month Book Club. Authors Sam Quinones and Maureen Cavanagh are visiting to encourage Bostonians to read about addiction and recovery and start conversations about what we can all do to help. You can join them on Wednesday, September 26, from 6-7:30 p.m. at Old South Church.
I take hope from the people who are sharing their stories of recovery and healing at events like this and in conversations all year round.
I take hope from the progress we are making every day in fighting this epidemic.
I take hope from my deep conviction that, with treatment and support, we can get better. That’s how I rebuilt my life and lived my dream, and it’s why I will not rest until a fully supported pathway to long-term recovery is available to every single person who needs it.
To learn more about recovery services in the City of Boston, visit: www.boston.gov/departments/recovery-services.
Martin J. Walsh is Mayor of Boston.