By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Worcester County Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis discussed the county’s new focus on fighting opiate abuse at the Shrewsbury Rotary Club’s March 30 meeting.
The sheriff has been vocal about the role substance abuse plays in leading users to crime and, eventually, prison.
“About 85 to 90 percent of inmates are incarcerated because of addiction,” he told the group. “It’s no mystery what sends people to prison – it’s substance abuse.”
His proudest accomplishment during his tenure, Evangelidis said, is his Face2Face program that he created five years ago for middle and high school students. The program uses real life examples of how substance abuse has ruined lives, comparing before and after photographs of addicts. It also features a software program showing how students might look after years of substance abuse.
About 150,000 students have seen the presentation.
“Twenty-five percent of the kids do not need to see the program and 25 percent are beyond it,” Evangelidis said. “But it’s that other 50 percent that we want to reach. We want to make a kid think twice before choosing the wrong path.”
Earlier in March, Evangelidis was named to Worcester Country District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.’s Central Mass. Task Force to combat opiate use. The task force brings together law enforcement, government leaders, healthcare professionals and experts in the field of substance abuse.
The growing use of prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin, as well as cheaper alternatives such as heroin, have led to an increase in overdose deaths, Evangelidis noted.
“I’ve gone to too many funerals lately,” he said. “[Opiate abuse] is killing our young people. In five years, there won’t be a family in America that isn’t affected by opiate addiction. It has to stop.”
He asked Rotary Club members if they were familiar with the overdose-reversing drug Narcan. Most of them were, but five years ago had never heard of it.
“This is symbolic of what’s going on right now,” he said. “Five percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, but we consume 90 percent of the opiates.”
Although Narcan is effective in saving lives, he admitted, it should not be thought of as a solution.
“It encourages people not to be afraid of a drug overdose because they can OD and survive,” he noted. “I don’t want it to be considered an easy fix to a very complex problem.”
He said he wasn’t sure exactly what his role will be on the new Central Mass. Task Force – it will be meeting soon – but he will continue his mission to raise awareness through the Face2Face program, in addition to “Scared Straight” tours of the jail and substance abuse education programs for inmates.
“We’re in a war now,” he said.