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Editorial: Time for N.H. to see heroin for the crisis it has become

When Gov. Maggie Hassan delivered her State of the State address earlier this month, she spoke at length of a dozen or so priorities before turning to substance abuse and, in passing, heroin.

A month earlier, in the upside-down state to our left, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his similar, agenda-setting speech entirely to what he called “the rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime” – problems related in large part, at present, to heroin.

“It is a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface,” he said. “. . . It requires all of us to take action before the quality of life that we cherish so much is compromised.”

Shumlin is right. His call to action should be heeded here, too. We need to lift substance abuse from the “in other business” end of New Hampshire’s political agenda – now.

The Vermont numbers Shumlin cited are alarming:

• An increase of more than 770 percent in treatment for all opiates (drugs such as OxyContin and heroin) since 2000.

• A 250 percent increase in people receiving heroin treatment since 2000 – 40 percent in the past year alone.

• In 2013, a doubling of federal indictments against heroin dealers over the previous two years – and a doubling of heroin deaths from the year before.

If there’s a difference in New Hampshire, it’s only a matter of degree. The Concord police reported 44 incidents involving heroin in 2011 and 2012 – and 96 in 2013. In New Hampshire in 2008, there were 38 deaths due to heroin; last year, more than 60. Overall, drug abuse deaths take more lives each year than traffic accidents. Despite all this, heroin and substance abuse are not being treated here with anything approaching the urgency they deserve. Maybe it’s a case of unmet need fatigue – but that can’t be an excuse.

Consider the example of naloxone, or Narcan, a drug that – when administered in time – can stop heroin from taking a life. “A miracle drug,” one expert called it. Nevertheless, as Monitor staff writer Daira Cline reported yesterday, in New Hampshire, only emergency workers with advanced training are allowed to give heroin victims Narcan.

That makes no sense. In Vermont and Massachusetts, family members, police officers, and even other drug users are allowed to administer Narcan. There’s no question that taking such an approach here would save lives – at a cost of only $20 a dose.

Hassan’s spokesman told Cline that the governor was open to Narcan’s use “by more local first responders if they are trained effectively.” That’s one small step in the right direction. Let’s take it – and then let’s keep moving.

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