AYER -- Drug abuse is not just a crime, it's a health problem.
That's the message spreading from Boston to Ayer, where a drug court program helps drug offenders reintegrate into society.
Last week, Gov. Deval Patrick announced the need to provide better treatment for substance abusers rather than imprison them. It's the kind of message that brings hope for Advocates, a nonprofit that offers drug testing, counseling and other outpatient services for those assigned to drug court.
"We have a steady stream of people," said program director Hilary Curtis. "There's always people asking for our services. Things don't slow down, sadly."
Based on her experience at Advocates, Curtis said prescription-drug abuse seems to be the main drug problem in Ayer, followed closely by heroin and then alcohol.
"Prescription pills are number one, but for people who can't afford them they'll go for heroin, which is much cheaper," she said.
Drug addiction affects not only the user, but the community. Ayer Police gauge drug activity with the amount of petty theft and breaking and entering incidents, said Lt. Brian Gill.
A few years ago, there was a string of car break-ins.
"They were actually connected to a small organized group of people and they were just feeding their drug habit," he said. "And from what we could tell, it was a prescription drug habit."
Gill said Ayer tends to follow the trends of the general area, although right now the town seems to be doing a better job than others.
"Right now we're experiencing low drug activity calls, which is kind of different from what we're hearing from our surrounding areas," he said. "There is a heavier presence of drugs or drug crimes in the general area that we're not experiencing right now."
Gill also said prescription drugs have been heavily abused recently.
"Heroin has become very cheap, and that often becomes an alternative for prescription drugs because they are more expensive," he said. "I think that's what our surrounding areas are experiencing right now that we're thankfully not experiencing."
Ayer drug court is one of 19 in the state, but that number might change with the recent push to expand the state's drug court system. The court is an alternative to jail, allowing drug offenders who plead guilty to go through a 52-week program of sobriety.
But the program is often much harder than jail, and takes the average addict 18 months to complete. Participants must complete certain sobriety milestones in each of the four phases, but relapses can set them back a step, Curtis said.
"The investment is in people and not putting people in jail," she said. "Jail is just a revolving door for people -- they don't get treatment."
The Advocates office in Ayer serves the town and surrounding communities, but Curtis said there are still not enough outpatient services in the area. The Ayer Advocates office only serves adults and takes certain insurance carriers. Meanwhile, the wait for an inpatient service could be two months, she said.
"People can fall through the cracks really quickly. They need something now," she said. "There's just not enough referral."
Advocates relies on grants for funding, but operates on just enough money to get by. Funds that allow Advocates to provide free services will dry up in October, and Curtis is working on applying for more grants.
"If anything, it's harder and harder for people to find services because more and more clinics are closing because they can't afford to stay open," she said.
Sitting in Ayer District Court on Thursday, state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, listened to the success stories of drug court graduates. Flanagan chairs the Special Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options, which is investigating how the state can change the treatment of drug abusers who are disregarded and thrown into prison.
"There are people suffering from addiction that can fully function in society as long as they have long-term treatment and wraparound services," she said.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, whose district includes Ayer, also came out and noticed the benefits of the drug court system.
"It's clear that the drug courts become a support system for them, so we need to provide more resources and staffing," he said.
But the problem of a lack of services was mixed with hope, as drug court graduates shared their success in the very court they reported to years earlier.
Katie Blood, of Chelmsford, said drug court laid a foundation for other parts of her life.
"If not for drug court, I don't think I'd be the mother that I am today," she said, adding that she might have lost her daughter, Maddy, or died. But Maddy, now five, sat quietly with her mother in court.
Donna Kivlin, of Littleton, now works as a peer counselor at Advocates after battling substance abuse herself.
She said drug court saved her life and gave her her child back.
"I just want people to know that if I can do it, it can be done," she said.
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