Heroin has ‘corrosive effect’ in New Hampshire

Last modified: 4/7/2014 12:50:50 AM
Tracy had perhaps all the markings of a quiet life in rural New Hampshire: a husband, a teenage daughter, a steady job and a modest home in Weare. And in recent years, a troublesome pain in her back.

She discovered prescription painkillers. Then a year ago, she said, a co-worker at a Cumberland Farms offered an alternative: heroin. It was cheaper, easier to get, and at least as powerful as the brand-name pills she had been crushing and snorting at the time.

“You feel like, ‘Wow, I feel great, I can get up, clean, do whatever,’ ” she said of the drug’s effect. “ ‘I’m not messed up. Half of the people don’t even know I’m doing it.’ ”

Stories like hers are becoming all too familiar across New England, a region in the throes of a booming opiate epidemic. The upsurge, partly a byproduct of restrictions on prescription pills, has had pervasive effects in New Hampshire, where at least 69 people died last year from heroin overdoses, up from 16 in 2008 and fewer than 10 a little more than a decade ago.

In Concord alone, the number of heroin-related crimes has nearly tripled in the past 10 years, according to police records. Between 80 and 90 percent of burglaries and thefts in the city today are believed to be fueled by substance abuse, primarily of heroin and prescription pills.

“Virtually every major burglary case now appears to be driven by drugs,” Concord police Lt. Timothy O’Malley said.

For users and those closest to them, the consequences can be stark.

In the months since her introduction, Tracy, 54, who asked that her name be changed to protect her family’s identity, said she lost two jobs, her license and her car; was arrested twice for shoplifting; and watched her marriage deteriorate and her 19-year-old daughter stumble into the same opiate-fueled tailspin.

“I have ruined my life,” she said.

The path to an epidemic

While heroin abuse has plagued the Northeast for decades, it has swelled in recent years as supply has risen and prescription pills have become more costly and more difficult to find, according to officials. Doctors have come under increasing pressure to avoid overprescribing painkillers, and state and federal authorities have stepped up efforts to curb drug scams like doctor-shopping, in which a patient fills duplicate prescriptions and sells the excess. Some pills have been physically reformulated to make them harder to crush and snort.

A single dose of a prescription painkiller can run between $30 to $35 in New Hampshire, while a single dose of heroin can go for as little as $6 in southern portions of the state and nearly twice that up north, according to officials.

And because the drug has increased in potency – purity levels now range between 50 and 70 percent but can tip into the 90s – it no longer needs to be injected to create a serious high. That has made it attractive for some users from older or more affluent demographics who prefer to snort, smoke or simply ingest it.

“When I was a kid, they were called junkies,” said Assistant Attorney General James Vara, who runs the department’s drug unit. “Everyone was using needles. Now you can snort it and get a similar if not better high.”

But the stigma is hard to escape: As a user’s tolerance for the drug rises, it prompts the need for more frequent use or injection in hopes of achieving a lasting high.

Prescription pain medication – like heroin, an opiate – remains in incredibly high demand, officials say. So much so that some dealers have begun pressing heroin into pill form and marketing it as its brand-name counterparts.

How it gets here

Most of New Hampshire’s heroin originates in Colombia and travels north through Mexico and then up the Eastern Seaboard, hopping from large urban hubs like Atlanta, New York City and Boston to smaller ones along the northern Massachusetts border, federal officials say. Nearly all of the heroin in and around Concord has passed first through Lowell, Lawrence or Methuen, according to the police.

“It’s a huge problem in Lawrence,” said Sgt. Jennifer MacKenzie of the New Hampshire State Police’s Narcotics Investigation Unit. “It’s on every street corner.”

It’s then driven north by dealers or individual users and circulated throughout New Hampshire, from population centers with historically heavy drug activity, including Manchester, the Seacoast and the Upper Valley, to rural locations – making it a particular challenge for law enforcement to keep pace.

“It’s an everywhere problem,” Vara said.

“Sit in a parking lot somewhere in Manchester – doesn’t have to necessarily be a shady area,” MacKenzie said. “It happens to us all the time: We’ll pull up to do something completely separate, and you’ll see a car pull up, somebody get out, hand somebody money and take off.”

The state forensics lab now tests an average of about 100 heroin case samples each month, up from about 75 a year ago. The lab tests 625 total samples every month, 44 percent of which is for marijuana and 22 percent for prescription pills.

In Merrimack County, the number of crimes involving heroin and other illegal narcotics has also swelled. The county attorney’s office said it made 432 drug and drug-related indictments last year – nearly twice as many as in 2010. Most of those were felonies, County Attorney Scott Murray said.

“It’s having a corrosive effect,” said Murray, who met last month with local police and treatment officials on the ways to better combat the drug’s spread. “It’s tremendously addictive, hard to treat, and the facilities don’t exist to treat it.”

The Concord police responded to 17 confirmed or suspected heroin overdoses since January of last year, according to department data. From 2011 to April 2013, it had just one confirmed fatal heroin overdose, O’Malley said. In the months since, it has had seven – two confirmed and five with pending lab results.

Since 2010, the city has seen a 22 percent drop in annual violations involving all other drugs, from 458 to 353.

Tracy’s $250-a-day addiction

But the numbers belie heroin’s human toll – on the lives of users, their relatives and friends, and the victims of related crimes.

Six years ago, Tracy was a school cook in her late 40s with acute back pain and a longtime aversion to needles. A doctor prescribed a mild painkiller, she said. She got hooked.

There had been drugs in the past – marijuana in her teens, cocaine in the ’80s, pills in more recent years – but she said she always managed their use, concealing it from others, avoiding legal trouble and holding down steady employment.

In the beginning, she said, heroin was no different. But as her tolerance rose, so too did the price of her addiction – topping out at one point about $250 per day, she said. Desperate for cash, she and a fellow user began shoplifting merchandise from chain stores, exchanging it for gift cards at other locations and then selling those on the street.

She was arrested twice in January and is facing three related misdemeanors, according to court records. Around then, she transitioned from snorting the drug to shooting it up, she said.

Her daughter, meanwhile, has developed her own heroin addiction, Tracy said – one made all the more dangerous because of her tendency to behave suicidally when on the drug. Tracy said neither of them can afford treatment, and her daughter might decline it anyway. She, on the other hand, vows she has had enough.

“I’m sick of it,” she said. “I’m sick of chasing it.”

Hurdles to getting clean

Her options are limited. There is the local methadone clinic, but she insists that the $15-per-day cost is too much. The Farnum Center, an inpatient treatment facility in Manchester, has up to 18 beds for low-income residents, but it can take between two and eight weeks for one to become available. Dr. Cheryl Wilkie, who directs the center, said the wait this week was roughly a month.

“Most people can’t wait four weeks,” Wilkie said. “They either die, or they get arrested and we’re paying $40,000 per year to put them in prison, or they relapse and never come back.”

Wilkie said there are about 40 low-income beds in the state.

“That’s not good,” she said. “That’s about a quarter of one facility in Massachusetts.”

Farnum also runs a six-day medical detox, which is easier to enroll in and tailored for addicts like Tracy, who is still using but mostly just to avoid the severe, flu-like symptoms that come from withdrawal. The problem is the center receives no state or federal aid to operate the unit, Wilkie said, meaning it costs thousands more than the more traditional 30-day program.

The center tries to accommodate everyone, Wilkie added, and has spent about $75,000 out of pocket on assistance since opening the unit last spring.

For now, Tracy does not have much optimism or a plan. She said she can go about two days before succumbing to the nausea, cold sweats and constant shaking. “You wake up and you’re thinking about it,” she said. “You’re thinking about how you can scrape enough together to get to Manchester to get a little bit of heroin so you’ll feel better, so you can make it through the day and face tomorrow.”

Which is different than how it once was, not that long ago.

“It used to be a couple drinks on a Friday night and a (Percocet),” she said. “How I wish it was back then.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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