Most communities across New Hampshire have been touched by the opioid crisis that’s taken the lives of more than 400 Granite Staters last year, a majority from heroin and fentanyl.
But one place in the Lakes Region stands out not for its significantly high overdose numbers but rather how its community is responding.
If you’re doing something illegal, the last person you’d willingly call is probably the police. Well that’s not always the case in Laconia – at least when it comes to using drugs.
“What do I do? My dealer is blowing up my phone, it’s driving me crazy. What do I do?,” said Police Officer Eric Adams, who was talking about one of the many calls he gets at all hours from those battling a drug addiction in the community.
Adams was hired by the Laconia Police Department about a year and a half ago as its prevention and treatment coordinator. Adams goes to overdose calls - talks with users, connects them with treatment and even gives them rides to some services.
“And you just talk with them, you explain to them, look you don’t answer that phone," Adams explained. "You kinda just work through it, and it’s not rocket science, you just care. That’s what it is, you show them that you actually care.”
He also hands each person he meets a card with links to treatment, insurance coverage and his personal cell phone number, which he answers 24/7.
So far Adams has been in touch with 128 people – more than half of them have sought treatment afterwards and a third have been in recovery for more than two months.
Laconia, a city of 17,000, counted 90 overdoses last year – 10 of them fatal and most involved fentanyl, a much more potent opioid. And those overdose numbers are only looking to increase with 40 overdoses already this year.
Police Chief Chris Adams said because Laconia is an old mill city with nearly a fifth of its population below the federal poverty level – drugs have always been an issue. But with the recent uptick in drug deaths, Adams said the department has to think outside the box.
“That was one of the points we wanted to get out there that, yes we are part of the police department, but we are also part of the community and you can call us for help," Adams said. "Just making arrests is not going to solve the problem.”
Adams said his officers still make drug arrests but their targets are drug dealers, not low-level users. So far this year, the department has made several large busts, most recently arresting around 40 drug dealers for selling heroin.
But it’s not just the city’s police department that’s working to combat this epidemic but the schools as well.
Both the public middle and high schools have ramped up its drug prevention efforts – they’ve even hired licensed addiction counselors.
And there’s the work of the residents too.
Like Clare Persson. She’s an occupational nurse and has no history of drug use, nor do any of her two kids or loved ones.
But five years ago when she went to a PTO meeting and heard from the students of Laconia that their friends and family members were dabbling with prescription drugs, she knew she had to do something.
“If we are feeling overwhelmed as adults like ‘I don’t know how to tackle this issue, it’s a huge issue - it’s a very complicated issue.’ If we feel this way, what do we think these kids that are living it feel?," Persson asked. "And what the hell is up with us as adults if we don’t stand up and have their backs.”
That’s when the grassroots coalition “Stand Up Laconia” kicked off and since then its membership has grown from the single digits to now more than 50 people regularly attending monthly meetings.
“People will say yeah, Laconia, wow, you guys have such an issue there, geez. Great stuff you are doing but I live in Gilford, I live in Moultonboro. This is what you’ll hear," Persson said. "And I always turn it around and say, 'what I am really proud of this in community, is this community is willing to acknowledge the issues that we have and try to work on making them better.'”
Persson chairs the coalition and said the volunteer group includes all walks of life from local police officers, school employees, and students to residents who have or know someone with an addiction.
The group focuses on prevention by organizing drug-free events such as Coffee Fest and movie screenings and when Pumpkin Fest moved to town – unlike past years, they didn’t serve alcohol.
This kind of community pride stands out, said Staff Sergeant Rick Frost of the New Hampshire National Guard. He works with communities across the state on how to better combat this drug crisis.
“I think the most unique thing about Laconia is their willingness and desire to get involved, where again some communities can be very quick to say there is nothing we can do, this problem is just too complex,” Frost said.
Several other communities across the state are looking to mimic some of Laconia’s ideas such as Portsmouth, whose officials are exploring a position similar to Officer Eric Adams, to starting their own community coalition such as Salem, Newfound and soon Belmont.
Nationally, politicians have noticed too. Hillary Clinton back in September applauded Laconia for its efforts while hosting a roundtable discussion on drugs for her presidential campaign.
“Let me thank the entire community because you really inspired us in our efforts to try to figure out what we could do to try to help you," Clinton told the crowd. "And I know we can do this – I’ve seen the results and here in Laconia you are demonstrating one of the paths forward.”
But it’s a long path.
Overdose deaths continue to rise and drugs continue to pour into the city’s borders but gauging how successful a community is in tackling a drug epidemic takes years to calculate.
And many in Laconia such as Perrson seems not to be discouraged by this uphill fight.
“’Yeah right, she’s really going to do something about drugs," Perrson said many would say to her. "And that was the attitude and actually someone talked to me afterwards, and said, 'I really applaud you but good luck because I don’t think you will be changing anything,'" Perrson recounted.
"And all I can say is one of the gifts I feel God has given me, and maybe why I own a terrier - is I am a terrier. I don’t really care about that.”