At least 300 people died from drug overdoses in New Hampshire last year, the most ever in the state.
A report cites the synthetic opioid fentanyl and heroin as the top two drugs having caused those deaths.
Laconia is among the communities where that spike in overdoses has continued into 2015.
Chris Adams is chief of police for Laconia, and joined Morning Edition to talk about how the city is handling the problem.
What are your officers are seeing out there?
Unfortunately, over the last two years we have seen a real significant increase in heroin use and abuse, including overdoses, both fatal and nonfatal. For many years, Laconia was immune from heroin. I’ve been there for 21 years and we rarely saw heroin in our community. Starting about two years ago, we really started to see an increase in the use, and of course, we’ve seen the devastation that has caused; effects on family, children, and of course, people dying.
Why do you think Laconia is now seeing that spike?
Like many other communities in New Hampshire and throughout the country, we’re seeing the effects of this current heroin epidemic. Prior to this, we had an issue with prescription drug abuse. Obviously, the feds regulated some of that, which then caused those individuals to seek other drugs to replace the prescription drugs. Heroin is extremely cheap. It’s extremely potent and it’s available.
What’s the relationship between heroin and fentanyl? Are users taking both, or one or the other? Is it the mix of the two that’s problematic?
In our community, we have seen a mix of fentanyl and heroin, but we’ve also seen deaths directly from fentanyl. We’ve had some people who’ve consumed the fentanyl patches and it’s extremely potent and they’ve died as a result of that.
Narcan is one tool I know the department is using a lot more. For those who don’t know, can you explain how Narcan is used and how often your department is using it?
The Laconia Fire Department has seen a huge increase in the administration of Narcan. It reverses the effects of heroin. I believe last year they used Narcan about 50 times. So far, year to date, they’ve used it about 20 to 25 times. Last year, we had 10 overdose deaths. This year, we’ve had four overdose deaths. Not all of those have been from heroin, but a majority of them have been heroin. If it wasn’t for Narcan, I’d say we probably would have doubled the number of fatalities.
I want to get your take on a bill going before the Senate this week. It would grant immunity from criminal prosecution to anyone who reports a drug or alcohol related emergency.
The idea being that other drug users might be likely to call in 911 if someone is overdosing if they won’t be prosecuted.
Any concerns with this proposal?
We’ve actually changed our philosophy when it comes to these types of calls. Traditionally, you would go to an overdose call and if there were drugs at the scene, the officer would most likely arrest the individual who overdosed or the people who are there who may have been the ones who called.
We still collect the evidence, but we’re not so quick to make an arrest because we want people to contact the police or fire if somebody’s life is in jeopardy so they don’t fear they’re going to be arrested. Now, sometimes it may be appropriate at a later time to make an arrest and that’s why we collect the evidence. But we find that more people are willing to reach out during times of crisis or emergency situations.
Are you looking at any new ways of being able to track down the source of the problem? Finding more drug dealers and prosecuting them?
Absolutely. Enforcement is a part of our plan, but it’s really a small part of it. I think law enforcement in general has switched their focus from enforcement and they realize there are so many other factors that lead to substance abuse and drug abuse. So, yes, we do target the dealers that come up from Lawrence, Lowell or Manchester, who set up shop and make huge profits. And we do treat overdose deaths like any crime. Our detectives will process the scene and we aggressively prosecute those who sell the drugs that cause the death.
We also realize that there are these other factors and we’ve initiated a new program. It’s a new position. It’s called Prevention Enforcement Treatment Coordinator. It’s a sworn police officer, but his real focus is on prevention, treatment, and outreach to those individuals who are most in need of the services.
What does he spend his time doing? What are some specifics?
He works very closely with many of the coalitions, with the court system, with the jail. Any overdose call that we respond to, he will respond after the officers and detectives have cleared the scene to make contact right at that critical point with family members and with the patient that overdosed and really walks them through the step of recovery. He’ll give them rides. He’ll give them his cell phone number.
He often receives phone calls at 1 or 2 in the morning when one of these patients are ready to use. They’ll call him and he’ll go out and either meet with them, transport them up to the hospital. It really focuses on the treatment aspect of it, the outreach, walking them through the steps and showing them what is available out there for services.
One of the big issues lawmakers are debating right now is funding for substance abuse programs in the next budget.
Governor Maggie Hassan has proposed tripling funding, but that’s been cut back in a proposal in the New Hampshire House.
Officials in Manchester are raising concerns about this, asking lawmakers to boost funding. Do you see a lack of treatment programs as an issue?
That’s a huge issue, not only for our region but the whole state. We really need to address the core reasons for addiction. It is a health issue, not a law enforcement issue. And if you don’t increase the amount of treatment prevention and services that are available, you’re just going to continue to have this cycle of abuse.