In a state where police chiefs often say “we can’t arrest our way out of the drug problem,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and legislative leaders are supporting a bill they admit would lead to more drug arrests.
Senate Bill 131 would appropriate $4.5 million, in part to add five new state police officers to fight New Hampshire’s drug crisis, on top of the 10 Sununu already proposed hiring in his budget proposal.
The bill also includes money to continue supporting Operation Granite Hammer, a major law enforcement initiative targeting local drug dealers.
What it doesn’t include is more money for drug courts – used to divert defendants away from the criminal justice system and into treatment programs.
“Without a doubt, there will likely be more arrests, but that also provides an opportunity for more folks to take advantage of the strength of our drug courts that gets folks better treatment and recovery,” Sununu said at a Tuesday press conference.
The drug courts have yet to be rolled out in each county. The state currently has alternative sentencing programs in Cheshire, Grafton, Rockingham, Hillsborough, Belknap and Strafford counties, pushing low-level offenders toward treatment.
Law enforcement officials said on Tuesday that the money for new troopers and the “Granite Hammer” program will help them go after high-level traffickers bringing drugs into the state, rather than those who are simply trying to support their own habit.
New Hampshire’s drug crisis is already overwhelming the available resources to prosecute dealers. The state crime lab is dealing with a backlog of thousands of cases where suspected drugs need to be tested and verified, and have asked for more staff to keep up.
Besides the sheer number of drug cases, the drugs are also becoming more complex, with a mixture of fentanyl, heroin and other additives. Police are also seeing more methamphetamine and cocaine showing up on the streets.
Surrounded by law enforcement officials Tuesday morning, Sununu urged legislators to vote in favor of the bill, stressing the necessity of stopping drugs before they enter New Hampshire communities.
Department of Safety Commissioner John Barthelmes added that it’s much easier to stop the flow of drugs on the highways than it is after the drugs have been repackaged to be sold on the street.
“These drugs are not coming by air, they’re not coming by sea – they’re coming up our roads and highways,” Barthelmes said. “And let me tell you, the quantities coming up into New Hampshire from out of state are significant.”
Barthelmes and New Hampshire State Police Col. Christopher Wagner said all major highways in the state, including I-95, I-93 and I-91, are hot spots for drug trafficking, something they believe new troopers could help reduce.
“For instance, if you take I-95, it spans from Massachusetts to Maine,” Wagner said. “So we know that to be a major corridor, that supplies from out of state on both ends, but distributes to both ends.”
Wagner said he did not have precise figures on the quantity of drugs New Hampshire State Police have so far netted during busts on state highways, but he said the amounts are significant.
“The increase of addiction and increased use of drugs are making our state roads and highways a lot less safe than they should be,” Barthelmes said.
(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, email@example.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)