Upper Valley library overdoses show heroin hasn’t gone away

  • Lebanon Police Officer Jeremy Perkins and his dog Blesk search the area outside the Kilton Library last month after a man in medical distress was administered Narcan on the Main Street sidewalk in West Lebanon. It was the third apparent drug overdose in recent weeks near the library, according to librarian Amber Coughlin. James M. Patterson / Valley News

Valley News
Published: 8/10/2021 4:42:51 PM

WEST LEBANON — After a series of heroin overdoses outside Kilton Public Library last month, library officials and patrons are desperate for solutions.

“It’s been brutal,” said Kilton Library Director Sean Fleming in an interview last week.

Fleming said the library’s facilities committee is planning a meeting Friday during which members will discuss putting security cameras outside the front entrance of the library at 80 Main St., near the bus station, where many of the overdoses have occurred.

He said the camera feed could go directly to the Lebanon Police station in hopes that, if someone is suffering from an overdose at night or when no one is around, police may be able to see it and respond to help.

“It could possibly save some lives,” he said.

The meeting was spurred by three overdoses outside the library in the span of a little over a week in late July, according to Lebanon Police Chief Phil Roberts. He said all three of the overdose cases were men. One overdose was fatal and two other victims were revived.

The rash of overdoses in such a short period of time is unusual for that area, Roberts said, adding that police are investigating whether they are all connected to the same batch of heroin.

“Our fear is, and the evidence suggests, that there is a bad batch” of drugs, he said.

Regardless of whether the overdoses are connected, the incidents are signs of the ongoing problem of heroin use in the Upper Valley.

The effects have been especially apparent in recent years, particularly along the corridor of Main Street in West Lebanon. Roberts said it’s become increasingly common for people to find needles and other drug paraphernalia in the area, or to see people using drugs.

Much of the activity happens near the Advance Transit bus stop in front of the library, partly because the area is a “central hub” with stores, transportation and other services nearby, Roberts said.

Advance Transit bus driver Horace Hood, who waited outside the library to pick up riders Tuesday, said he has seen an increase in drug use in the area in recent years.

“We bring people to the methadone clinic” in West Lebanon, Hood said. “And we see more people now. It’s gotten worse over the years.”

Fleming said the library can be a draw for people who are suffering from addiction, because employees don’t turn people away.

“The library is free and open and welcoming,” he said. “When you have that environment, people enter the grounds.”

However, as the problem of opioid addiction grows, library officials have had to adapt.

Last spring, an employee at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center reached out to the library about equipping staff members with naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote often carried by first responders. Many know it by the brand name Narcan.

Fleming said that the library has been equipped with the antidote since April 2020 and that one member of the staff is trained in using it.

Police have also adapted their response: Roberts said he has increased foot patrols in the area, with officers conducting five or six patrols down Main Street per shift. However, he said, there are limits on what police can accomplish.

“We’re never going to be able to enforce our way out of substance abuse disorders,” Roberts said. “It just takes people wanting to get clean and services to be available when they want them.”

Roberts attributes part of the issue to the connection between addiction and prescription painkillers like Percocet and Vicodin, which are known as prescription opioids.

Around 10 years ago, doctors frequently prescribed those and similar painkillers, but in recent years the practice has become less common as more is understood about the link between painkillers and opioid addiction, according to Roberts. But as prescription drugs are harder to find, police have seen an uptick in heroin use, he said.

“Federally, they kind of cracked down on prescription pain medications. They were more tightly regulated,” Roberts said. “What ends up happening is people become dependent on those and then turn to street drugs” like heroin.

That call for more services — such as treatment facilities — for people suffering drug addictions is a common one from Upper Valley residents and library officials in the wake of the overdoses. Currently Vermont and New Hampshire offer both inpatient and outpatient drug addiction treatment facilities, but they are spread out throughout the Twin States.

Upper Valley examples include inpatient facilities like Valley Vista in Bradford, Vt., and outpatient facilities like West Central Behavioral Health in Lebanon and Claremont.

Fleming said he thinks more easily accessible services in the area would help address the issue, adding that drug addiction is not limited to the Upper Valley.

“This is something present in so many areas of society,” he said. “There’s nowhere that’s immune.”

Lebanon resident Jessica Johnson, who was waiting outside the library at the bus stop this week, said more local treatment centers are key to cutting down on drug use.

“Treatment centers here are inundated,” she said, adding that it can be hard to access resources in the Upper Valley.

Johnson, who is a recovering addict, said the stigma surrounding drug use presents another problem. She was initially scared to seek help because of worries that the Division for Children, Youth and Families would use her addiction as a reason to take custody of her children.

For many library patrons, the response to the epidemic is one of care, rather than fear.

East Randolph resident Denice Paroline, who often takes her two granddaughters to the library, said she has no worries about the safety of her grandchildren with the uptick in drug use nearby.

Her focus lies more in finding help, like support groups, for people who are suffering from addictions.

“If there was help available at least ...” she said, her voice trailing off. “I know what the struggle is.”

Lebanon resident Kathy Beckett, who is Fleming’s mother, echoed Paroline, saying that the question of increasing services is one that has to be posed to city officials.

“We need resources for people who are addicted,” she said. “It’s really hard to find a bed” in an inpatient treatment center.

But, as Kilton and West Lebanon continue to struggle with the growing problem of addiction, she urged people to be sympathetic to those who are suffering.

“We as a community have to have compassion for people who are addicted,” she said. “People are trying.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.


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