special report
The battle rages on

Heroin epidemic's deadly toll remains high despite best efforts

From the DAY 1: The Heroin Crisis, Special Report II series
  • 3 min to read

From the governors’ offices on down, the opiate epidemic received considerable attention in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 2015. Whether that attention translates into results is still an open question.

The most telling measure of the crisis has remained stubbornly high.

In Massachusetts, as of Nov. 30, there were 148 suspected drug overdose deaths in Essex County, according to the Essex County district attorney’s office, compared to 190 for all of 2014.

Lahey Health Behavioral Services CEO Kevin Norton said it will take more than a year before we know whether progress is being made.

“Even if it goes down for one month, it could be a reflection of the supply on the streets,” Norton said. “It’s going to be 16 to 18 months before we can see a potential trend.”

In New Hampshire, the drug epidemic had claimed 295 lives by mid-November.

But the projected number of deaths, since not all toxicology reports are in, is expected to reach at least 357 by year’s end, said chief forensic investigator Kim Fallon of the state medical examiner’s office.

N.H. Attorney General Joseph Foster, however, predicts the number could easily top 400.

There were 326 overdose deaths reported in all of 2014.

Of the 295 deaths as of mid-November, 244 were caused by opiates and opioids and 183 deaths involved fentanyl, the medical examiner’s office said.

There were 135 deaths directly linked to just fentanyl and 21 attributed to just heroin in New Hampshire. Thirty-one deaths were tied to the use of both heroin and fentanyl. In October, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker filed what he called “landmark legislation” to help fight the problem.

The law would give doctors the authority to commit drug addicts to a 72-hour period of involuntary treatment, similar to an existing law regarding people with mental illnesses who pose a serious risk of harm.

The proposal has raised concerns from disability rights advocates and some legislators about infringing on people’s civil rights by committing them without a court order.

Baker’s proposal would also limit doctors to prescribing only a 72-hour supply for first-time opioid prescriptions, and end the practice of sending female addicts to prison in Framingham. Instead, they would be treated at new, secure treatment units approved by state public and mental health officials.

Baker signed a separate bill in November that closes a loophole in the law and now makes it a crime to sell more than 10 grams of fentanyl. The governor also announced a five-week media campaign seeking to reduce the stigma of addiction through radio, billboard and digital advertisements.

Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said his office has expanded its adult drug diversion program into the Lawrence District Court. The program allows non-violent offenders to receive substance abuse treatment rather than face prosecution.

Blodgett has also sponsored talks by former Boston Celtic and recovering heroin addict Chris Herren in Peabody and Beverly.

“We cannot let up on prevention and education while we seek to expand treatment and strengthen our drug trafficking laws,” Blodgett said. “We must continue to make every effort to convince young people not to even try these drugs once.”

Other initiatives include a plan by Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins to open a 42-bed detox unit at the Middleton jail to treat addicts awaiting court dates for minor drug-related offenses. A spokesman for Cousins said the unit could open in December.

Norton, whose Danvers-based company is one of the area’s largest treatment providers, said the fact that the epidemic is out from behind closed doors is the biggest sign of progress so far.

“Across the commonwealth, the most positive outcome is that there has been an incredibly open dialogue about a problem that is plaguing every community and almost every family in Massachusetts,” he said. “The progress has been that everyone’s willing to have the conversation and try something unique and different to get at the root of the problem.”

In New Hampshire, the opioid crisis has overwhelmed the State Police forensic laboratory with overdose cases.

A staff of six criminologists faces a backlog of about 3,800 drug cases, director Tim Pifer said.

“The number of heroin and fentanyl cases has skyrocketed,” Pifer said. “Nobody really knows what’s in that white powder they are injecting themselves with.”

The state lab sees an average of 750 drug cases a month, but has the resources to handle only about 500, he said.

All four members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation have joined together to fight for more federal funding for the overburdened lab.

The crisis has raised the concern of lawmakers and other state officials, including Gov. Maggie Hassan.

“With Granite Staters dying nearly every day from the heroin and opioid crisis, we know that we must work with a sense of urgency in order to strengthen our efforts to combat this epidemic and save lives,” she said.

Hassan requested a special legislative session to focus on drafting bills to tackle the epidemic.

Since late November, a 26-member task force has been meeting to study opiate addiction and propose legislation that lawmakers will consider when the next regular session begins in January.

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