As if an addiction to heroin weren’t life-threatening enough, now the streets are flooded with a version of the drug mixed with a powerful narcotic, making a particularly deadly combination.
Deaths from heroin overdose are increasing nationwide, law enforcement officials say. And the prime suspect is heroin that has been laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic pain-killer introduced in the 1960s. The combination has a number of street names including “Ace of Spades,” “Ace of Hearts,” “Theraflu,” “Bud Ice” and “24K.”
Local police departments, with assistance from state police and the FBI, are cracking down on this deadly trade. Last week, Methuen, Lawrence, Andover, North Andover, Haverhill and Salem, N.H., police, along with state police and the Essex County Sheriff’s department, conducted an operation against heroin sales that resulted in 33 arrests in Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill. Many of those charged come from Lawrence and Methuen. But others were from as far away as Somerville and Medford, Pelham and North Conway, N.H., and Fryeburg, Maine, according to police.
An Eagle-Tribune reporter and photographer accompanied police on some of the arrests. The picture that emerges of the heroin trade is not a pretty one.
One young mother drove her Toyota into a gas station on the Lawrence-Methuen line. Hypodermic needs were strewn across the passenger seat. Her 6-month-old child was in a carrier in the back seat.
At a local fast-food restaurant, five people sitting in two separate cars were observed using heroin.
Drug buys were witnessed in two residential neighborhoods in Lawrence.
Sales often take place in shopping plazas, typically those with easy access to major highways. Some businesses have been forced to close their restrooms as addicts use them to shoot up.
Local police chiefs met in Andover late in January to discuss the growing heroin problem. They opted for a tactic known as “displacement,” a high-intensity enforcement effort aimed at slowing heroin sales and possibly averting overdoses.
“We want them to see a heavy police presence. ... We want them to stop coming here to buy drugs,” Methuen police Chief Joseph Solomon told reporter Jill Harmacinski.
Methuen has seen 33 heroin overdoses since November, Solomon said. In one case, a mother injected herself in a gas station bathroom and overdosed. Police found her children in her vehicle outside.
“The increase in heroin use is not staggering, but the increase in overdoses is,” Solomon said.
Acting Lawrence police Chief James Fitzpatrick is aware of the overdose problem, although it’s unclear how many overdoses occurred in that city recently. Fitzpatrick said there was one death in the city in 2013 as a result of the heroin overdose. He told Harmacinski that he has spoken with emergency staff at Lawrence General Hospital about it.
“They are definitely picking up,” said Fitzpatrick.
The problem with heroin is that it is relatively inexpensive with a gram of the drug — enough for a day for a moderate to heavy user — selling on the street for $40 to $50.
The fentanyl-heroin mix is deadly because the fentanyl itself is a powerful respiratory depressant. Heroin users preparing their usual dose will overdose on the same amount of a heroin-fentanyl mix.
It seems drug users are endlessly inventive in discovering new ways to destroy their lives. The police crackdown on this deadly scourge is welcome. It could save lives.