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'Bad heroin' hits NH communities hard

After three overdoes in 24 hours, authorities expect extremely potent or tainted heroin

By Angeljean Chiaramida
The Daily News of Newburyport

SEABROOK, N.H. — When Sgt. Brett Walker responded to two heroin overdoses in a matter of two hours on Jan. 15, he became concerned it could be more than addicts using too much of the illegal drug that was the problem.

“Two overdoses in two hours could have been a coincidence, but I was worried there could be some tainted heroin on the street that was responsible,” Walker said. “I told all the other officers here that if there were any more overdoses, I wanted to know. More than two, that’s not likely to be coincidental. That’s probably bad heroin.”

That was a week before Portsmouth police issued a warning after three heroin overdoses were recorded in a 24-hour period in that city, with one 37-year old victim dying. Concerned about “bad heroin” being sold, Portsmouth police turned to the media in hopes of cautioning users.

“We’re dealing with some type of heroin here on the Seacoast and we don’t know if it’s extremely potent or perhaps tainted, but certainly we’ve had three people in the past 24 hours in this community alone that have had to go to the hospital, so it’s very concerning,” Portsmouth police Capt. Mike Schwartz told a New Hampshire television reporter last week.

Portsmouth experienced one overdose Tuesday night, Jan. 21, and two the following day.

‘‘It is an epidemic in no uncertain terms,’’ Schwartz said.

And just a few days before Portsmouth police came forward, Manchester’s police Chief David Mara went before city officials pleading for money to hire additional officers just to combat heroin on the streets.

In Salem, the scenario was similar just this week when three people overdosed on possibly tainted narcotics within 24 hours, according to police Deputy Chief Shawn Patten.

A 20-year old Haverhill woman ended up fighting for her life in a Boston hospital after she and a male companion were found unconscious and not breathing in a car Monday afternoon, he said. Her companion, a 21-year-old man from Salem, was also hospitalized.

Then, at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Salem paramedics revived an unconscious 21-year-old man. Police believe he may also have ingested tainted narcotics, Patten said.

The drugs could be heroin, cocaine, a combination or other substances being sold as heroin, Patten said.

Heroin is an old enemy in Seabrook, where in 2004 former police Chief Bill Baker said it had become a “plague.” But shortly after that, the drug world shifted gears, transitioning to the illegal use of prescription drugs, like methadone, oxycodone, diazepam, fentanyl and morphine, and by those who would never have thought of using heroin. In Seabrook, prescription drug abuse led to three deaths in six months in 2005.

Walker, a Seabrook officer since 2003, served for two years as a member of the N.H. Attorney General’s Drug Task Force and he witnessed the switch.

“I was sent to the task by (former Seabrook) police Chief Dave Currier because of the heroin problem in town,” Walker said. “But when I got there, I quickly realized things it was prescription drugs that had become the drugs of choice.”

State statistics confirm Walker’s experience. In 2005 and 2006 there were at least 291 drug-related deaths in New Hampshire, according to the medical examiner’s office. Of those, 87 could be traced to abuse of the prescription drug methadone, 40 to the prescription drug oxycodone and 17 to the prescription drug fentanyl.

In 2008, drug deaths in New Hampshire overtook traffic fatalities as the state’s No. 1 killer.

So rampant was the problem in Seabrook in 2005, then Detective Sgt. Mike Gallagher, now deputy chief, reached out to The Daily News to sound the alarm. Soon, to get as many unused, but potentially lethal, prescription drugs out of local homes, Seabrook became the first police station in the state to provide a place where anyone could drop off unneeded prescription drugs with no questions asked.

According to state records, for the first time heroin is the top killer in drug deaths in the Granite State. But in 2012, heroin was responsible for 38 of the 164 drug deaths in the state, according to state records.

“This is an urgent public heath issue,” said Kim Fallon, chief forensic investigator for the New Hampshire medical examiner.

And although last year’s data isn’t yet complete, Fallon said, it appears at least 63 people died of heroin overdoses in 2013, and that number could grow.

Walker has seen heroin use increase in Seabrook, but he also still sees prescription drug abuse activity as well. And Walker thinks there’s a link between heroin and prescription drug abuse.

A lot of people would never start their illicit drug careers loading up a syringe with heroin and shooting it into their veins, he said. But they could end up there.

“They consider heroin dirty and something that’s linked to disease,” he said. “But they’ll take prescription drugs, like oxycodone, recreationally because they think it’s safe, and then they get hooked pretty quickly. But, when the $1 per milligram cost of an 30 or 80 milligram tablet (of oxycodone) gets too high for them to sustain their habit, some friend will turn them on to heroin, which is much cheaper. It can cost $5 to $10 a bag, depending on the size and quality.”

In addition, he said, the quality of the heroin around these days — as opposed to 20 years ago — provides users the option of snorting it. Although many believe its cleaner than injecting it, the practice can quickly lead to addition.

From what the medical examiner’s office sees, those who die from overdosing on heroin fall into two categories: young recreational users, and older adults who get addicted to prescription painkillers after they've been legally prescribed. Then for whatever reason, they end up on heroin.

Assistant Attorney General James Vara said recently the spike in heroin use over the past few years is showing no sign of tapering off.

‘‘It’s growing at an alarming rate throughout the entire state of New Hampshire and is causing a myriad of crimes,’’ Vera said. ‘‘Burglaries and robberies are all up. It doesn't seem to be stopping.’’

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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