NEWBURYPORT — Tony Pettigrew, Drug Enforcement Agency Boston office spokesman, has strong feelings about the notion that it’s “bad heroin” that’s the cause of the rash of drug overdoses and deaths throughout New England recently.
“We keep hearing about the problem being caused by bad batches of heroin,” said Pettigrew, a Newburyport resident. “There’s no such thing as a good batch of heroin. When you use any heroin, you’re playing Russian roulette. Heroin has never gone away. It’s a problem our office is working on every day.”
The illegal drug has made the news in every state in New England of late, primarily because heroin-caused overdoses and deaths are happening in places unaccustomed to witnessing its presence so frequently and fatally. Some of those overdoses are being linked to so-called “bad heroin,” a potentially deadly mixture of heroin and fentanyl, a powerful prescription narcotic.
For the past 10 years in the region, the illegal use of prescription drugs has been the culprit killing drug abusers.
Thought to be the scourge of large inner cities like New York, heroin is now in places like Vermont, where the governor recently held a press conference on the problem in the Green Mountain State.
In New Hampshire, the medical examiner’s office called the drug “an urgent health issue,” when records showed that in 2012 heroin was the top killer in drug deaths in the Granite State, responsible for 38 deaths. Although last year’s data isn’t complete, at least 63 people died of heroin overdoses in 2013.
Multiple overdose victims and deaths have been recorded within hours of each other in Massachusetts and every New England state, Pettigrew said. Some of the problem has been traced to the “bad heroin” that’s made its way north from Pennsylvania, where it was responsible for a number of deaths.
Warnings went out about the deadliness of the heroin/fentanyl combo with the hopes users would stop or watch what they shot into their veins. But, Pettigrew said, in the drug world that information could have had a dangerous effect.
“When there are clusters of overdoses like that, it can actually draw heroin users to the areas involved,” Pettigrew said. “The users are looking for that drug because they think the overdoses and deaths came from user error. They think the people died because they didn’t know how to use the heroin properly. But they think they can.”
Pettigrew said the fight to keep heroin out of local communities starts at home and in schools.
He credited Newburyport police Marshal Tom Howard and Newburyport Youth Services officials for bringing in former basketball star Chris Herren to speak with students and parents at Newburyport High School recently. An outstanding basketball guard from his high school days in Fall River, Herren eventually played for the Celtics, but lost everything to the addiction he chronicles in his book, “Basketball Junkie.”
Beginning by using prescription drugs like Oxycontin, vicodin and percocet, by 2004 he was arrested for possession of heroin in a Rhode Island Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. Herren ended up overdosing on heroin and crashing his car in Fall River, where, according to emergency responders, he’d been dead for 30 seconds.
Pettigrew said Herren’s message was well received by students and parents.
“I was thrilled so many people came to the evening session,” Pettigrew said. “The auditorium at the school was filled to capacity.”
But keeping drug abuse at bay doesn’t happen from a single event, he said. Parents must begin a dialogue against substance abuse with their children in ways they can understand as soon as kids are able to understand, he said.
“Parents need to speak with their kids about substance abuse as they’re growing up,” Pettigrew said. “They need to speak about smoking, drinking, marijuana and drugs abuse. It’s a constant conversation they need to have.”
Questions arise as to where the drug is coming from and why it’s in local neighborhoods.
The DEA works to identify and eliminate the large drug suppliers, and according to Pettigrew most of the heroin seen in the United States originates in South America and comes into this country via Mexico. Once it’s made its way to the East Coast, he said, it often comes north on main travel corridors — like Interstate 95 — into New York City and other large urban centers like Boston.
It filters to smaller cities, like Lawrence, Lowell, Manchester, N.H., or Burlington, Vt., he said, and finds its way into suburban and rural communities and neighborhoods.
In Seabrook, where there were two heroin overdoses within two hours in mid-January, police Sgt. Brett Walker said most of the drug supply is provided by user/dealers. The scenario has users traveling to Massachusetts and buying drugs, he said, then using what they need and selling the rest to support their habit.
Walker said during his years as a member of the AG’s Drug Task Force, he saw New Hampshire border communities, like Seabrook, Salem, Pelham and Plaistow, as easily accessed by user/dealers from suppliers from Boston, Lawrence and Haverhill.
N.H. State Police Lt. Christopher Vetter, commander of Troop A, which patrols much of the southern state highway system, said Interstate 95 is a corridor traveled frequently by drug purchasers. And the traffic route is “usually heading north,” he said.
“I don’t know if we’re seeing more heroin, but we’re seeing a lot,” Vetter said. “We made 40 heroin arrests alone in 2013, and some were of significant quantity. One was more than 700 bags.”
The user/dealers transporting the drugs are often so addicted they can’t wait to get back home before they pull over to shoot up. Then they end up on public highways driving under the influence of heroin.
“It would not be unusual for our troopers to make arrests after finding someone using drugs in a rest area (along I-95) or in the parking lot at the tollbooth,” Vetter said.
”Chasing the dragon” is the craving heroin addicts have for the insatiable urge to relive the high they got the first time they indulged, Walker said. Overdoses come not only from bad heroin, he said, but also from addicts using more and more of the drug in that pursuit.
Many believe it’s the abuse of prescription drugs that’s fueling the flames of heroin addiction. Pettigrew, Walker and others say many using heroin turned to it because they can’t afford to feed their expensive prescription drug addiction, which can cost $1 per milligram for 30 to 80 mg pills. Buying heroin to get high simply costs less.
At $5 to $10 a bag, heroin is cheap, available and pure enough these days for users to snort for the desired effect, Pettigrew said.
“Snorting doesn’t appear to have the same dirty stigma that shooting heroin has,” Pettigrew said. “But eventually they’ll inject it.”