Police watched as a young mother driving a silver Toyota Matrix pulled into a gas station on the Lawrence/Methuen line. Her 6-month-old child was secured in a carrier in the back of the car. Hypodermic needles were strewn across the passenger seat.
She and two friends were in possession of heroin, prompting a search of her vehicle, police said.
The woman was allowed to call a family member to come get her baby as police investigated. She was issued a summons to appear in court for being present where heroin is kept.
There’s no way of really knowing, but perhaps this was one time police saved someone from becoming another overdose victim.
Reports of heroin overdoses are spiking nationally at an alarming rate.
Law enforcement blames many of the overdoses on heroin laced with fentanyl — a synthetic drug introduced in the 1960s as an intravenous anesthetic. It is stronger than morphine, another painkiller used for extreme pain.
Overdose deaths from heroin laced with fentanyl have been reported along the East Coast, including in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island and New York, police said. Heroin laced with fentanyl is suspected in at least 50 recent fatal overdoses in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Maryland.
It is packaged in glassine baggies stamped “Ace of Spades” and “Aces of Hearts.” The deadly mix of the drugs has street nicknames of “Theraflu,” “Bud Ice,” and “24K,” according to police. When a user injects fentanyl, it affects the central nervous system and brain, and since it is more powerful it leads to trouble breathing or they even stop breathing as the drug sedates the user.
In response to the deadly threat, detectives from the Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts state troopers and an FBI agent took part in an operation Thursday to try to get some of the drug off the streets. A reporter and photographer from The Eagle-Tribune, a sister paper of The Daily News, accompanied some of the officers.
Thirty arrests were made that day in Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill. Those charged come from Lawrence and Methuen. Others are from Somerville and Medford, Pelham and North Conway, N.H., and Fryeburg, Maine, police said.
Detectives keeping a lookout on a McDonald’s restaurant parking lot discovered five people shooting and snorting heroin in two separate cars.
Another time, two men in different cars met on Sunray Street, off Ferry Street in the Lawrence Prospect Hill neighborhood, for an early afternoon hand-to-hand exchange of heroin.
“We want them to see a heavy police presence ... We want them to stop coming here to buy drugs,” said Methuen police Chief Joseph Solomon.
In Methuen, 33 heroin overdoses have been recorded since November, including 14 in January and one already this month, Solomon said. Two weeks ago, a local mother shot up in a gas station bathroom and overdosed. Police found her children in her minivan parked outside, Solomon said.
“The increase in heroin use is not staggering, but the increase in overdoses is,” said Solomon, who was among a group of local chiefs who met on Jan. 30 to discuss the uptick in heroin overdoses locally.
At that meeting, the chiefs decided to arrange Thursday’s high intensity “displacement” operation in the hopes of slowing down heroin sales and averting the overdoses.
While the tainted heroin is being sold and used, police are uncertain how it arrived in the area and who the top supplier is. Heroin sells in the area of $60 to $80 per gram, with a half gram running at about $40. Detectives said the more heroin you buy often results in a reduction in price.
Heroin overdoses were reported recently in Salisbury, Haverhill and Salem, N.H. Portsmouth, Seabrook and other southern New Hampshire communities have also reported drug overdoses connected to tainted heroin. In Portsmouth last month, three people overdosed, with one person dying, within a 24-hour period. The outbreak prompted officials there to issue a warning about tainted heroin.
Last weekend, Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died from an apparent overdose in his Manhattan apartment.
Overdoses underscore diverse user group
Police said users include the unemployed, students, mothers with children in tow and professionals in business attire.
“There is no face of a heroin user,” said Methuen police Lt. Kevin Mahoney.
On Thursday, 30 police officers, troopers and agents met in Lawrence and then split into four teams. The teams then headed to “hot areas,” where drug use or sales were reported or seen previously by police.
Mahoney said many of these areas are parking lots in shopping plazas, especially those with quick highway access for heroin buyers and sellers.
Some businesses have been forced to close their restrooms to the public after addicts repeatedly used them to shoot up. Some junkies even flush hypodermic needles down toilets at coffee shops and fast food restaurants, resulting in costly plumbing repairs for the business owners, Mahoney said.
Just 40 minutes after the operation started, police came upon a heroin deal at Sunray and Highlawn streets on Prospect Hill in Lawrence. A Rowley man was driving a Mercury Mountaineer slowly on Prospect Street near Ferry Street, raising police suspicions.
A short time later, after the Mountaineer parked on Sunray Street, a Lawrence man driving a Nissan Altima parked across the street. The driver got out and got in the back seat of the Mountaineer. Police soon recovered “several baggie twists of heroin” and placed both drivers, along with a passenger in the Mountaineer, under arrest, according to a report by Trooper Jason Conant.
Just before 6 p.m., detectives arrested five people using heroin in two separate cars parked at McDonald’s on Broadway in Lawrence. “It should be noted that this particular area has been a common meeting place for both drug dealers and drug users,’” Lawrence Detective Carmen Purpora wrote in his report.
Thursday’s operation was considered by police to be a “great success.”
Solomon said police were able to gather intelligence for drug investigations in the future, heighten public perception of the overdose issue and work together with outside departments and agencies. “It’s a win-win everywhere,” he said.