Sununu blames Lawrence, Mass., for N.H. drug problem, says prevention programs ‘stink’

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu blamed Lawrence, Mass., for the flow of deadly opioids into the state during comments made Thursday to business leaders in Manchester. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Thursday, March 02, 2017

Gov. Chris Sununu has been talking tough on the opioid crisis, but his latest comments have rankled officials in neighboring Massachusetts, as well as treatment and prevention advocates in New Hampshire.

Speaking to business leaders in Manchester on Wednesday, Sununu blamed Lawrence, Mass., for the flow of deadly opioids into the state and said New Hampshire’s drug prevention programs “stink.” Recounting a recent meeting with other New England governors, Sununu also said he would pursue a cross-border operation into Massachusetts to target drug dealers in Lawrence.

“I sat down with Charlie Baker and all the governors from the New England region, and I said, ‘We’re going across borders, you better get ready,’ ” Sununu said. “We’re going in and we’re going to get tough on these guys. I want to scare every dealer that wants to come across that border.”

But New Hampshire’s top law enforcement official said state police don’t have the jurisdiction to go across state lines and nab Massachusetts dealers, unless they are on a regional task force with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Attorney General Joe Foster said there is no current operation where New Hampshire officers are being sent into Massachusetts to arrest drug dealers, and he’s discussed no such operation with Sununu.

“It sounds like the governor had something different in mind,” Foster said.

On Wednesday, Sununu spoke about working with federal DEA agents and police in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

N.H. Assistant Attorney General Ben Agati said New Hampshire law enforcement can charge a Massachusetts drug dealer if they can trace that person back to deaths in the Granite State.

“Unless you’re working under a federal agency, you can’t just go driving down across the border and pull people back,” Agati said. “Certainly operations like that go on from the DEA side of it.”

Lawrence connection

New Hampshire now ranks second nationwide for per-capita drug overdose deaths, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with fentanyl and other opioids responsible for most of them.

Out of the 434 people who died in New Hampshire from drug overdoses last year, the powerful synthetic alone caused at least 183 deaths, according to statistics from the state chief medical examiner’s office, and the drug led to another 116 deaths when mixed with other substances.

On Wednesday, Sununu said that 85 percent of fentanyl in the state comes from Lawrence.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said Sununu’s comments about his city were shortsighted and ignore a regional addiction problem.

Sununu “was trying to make a point ... but there’s collateral damage when you make a point for effect that way,” Rivera said at a Thursday press conference. “The opioid crisis is so large that no community is without a problem. And to make it about Lawrence is the trap.”

Agati said his office does not have the statistics to show definitively that 85 percent of the fentanyl in New Hampshire comes from Lawrence, but added that that area of Massachusetts is widely regarded as a drug hot spot by law enforcement.

“A lot of people would agree with that statement,” he said, adding, “I don’t think we’ve got any numbers to support it.”

Sununu and Rivera talked by phone Thursday afternoon, after which Sununu’s office issued a statement with a noticeably softer tone. The governor said he was “encouraged” by the conversation and had invited Rivera to help him develop a plan to find solutions to the drug problem in both states.

“The Mayor and his local law enforcement personnel have been doing a good job on this issue, but we must recognize this is a cross-border problem that requires cross-border solutions,” Sununu said in his statement.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker did not return a request for comment.

‘They stink’

Sununu also drew criticism Wednesday from advocates in his own state for comments on New Hampshire’s prevention programs.

“They stink. You can quote me on that,” he said. “And I’m saying that not as a politician, but as a dad.”

Sununu said his fifth- and sixth-grade children are part of school prevention programs that are “incredibly weak.”

“They’re nascent,” he said of the programs. “They’re all a bit different. Some communities have them; some communities don’t. There’s really no set of standards.”

That comment took prevention coordinator Deb Naro by surprise.

“I was quite stunned, actually,” said Naro, the executive director of CADY Inc., an alcohol- and drug-use prevention nonprofit based in Plymouth. “It’s so inaccurate. He’s obviously not informed on the regional prevention network system in New Hampshire. It’s a well-oiled machine.”

In fact, some of New Hampshire’s regional prevention programs have received national recognition – Dover’s Youth To Youth program was honored at the White House in 2015.

Beyond awards, survey results indicate that prevention efforts have had a measurable impact on some parts of the state.

Officials at the North Country Health Consortium say their prevention work has led to lower teen drinking rates. In 2009 – the year the program started – 26 percent of regional high school students reported never drinking alcohol; that number rose to 38 percent, according to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey numbers.

Naro and Sununu agree that there needs to be more state funding for prevention. Sununu’s recent budget proposal pledges to double the state’s contribution to the alcohol fund – a slice of Liquor Commission profits meant to be diverted to prevention programs. The program hasn’t been fully funded since 2003.

“There’s little to no money on the ground to implement prevention strategies,” Naro said. “My organization has to physically raise the funds, through grant writing and fundraising.”

Sununu’s spokesman Dave Abrams said the state must do more to support prevention specialists to fight the opioid crisis.

“Governor Sununu is working to bring our prevention professionals to the table, so that more Granite Staters and all of our schools have greater access to the best prevention programs,” Abrams said.

Naro said Sununu did not reach out to her organization directly, but that youth in CADY Inc. have contacted the governor’s office to schedule a meeting with him. After his recent comments, she said she welcomes the opportunity to meet more than ever.

“I think it’s really imperative that he listens,” she said. “I think as a new governor he does have a learning curve. I’d love to offer to help educate him.”

(Allie Morris contributed to this story. Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, amorris@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)