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The drug crisis continues
Record overdoses, out-of-state dealers, emergency bills

12/31/15
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



When drug-related overdose deaths jumped more than 40 percent in 2014 over the year prior (with a total of 326), it was a wake-up moment for the state. The heroin epidemic was here, it was real and it wasn’t going to be ignored any longer. While politicians, law enforcement and public health officials all seem to be working toward solving this problem, early indications are that the storm is going to get worse before it gets better.

 
Grim statistics
Opioids of all kinds are addictive and dangerous, and state officials, law enforcement and others say the legal and legitimately prescribed painkillers like oxycodone are often where this problem starts. Once someone gets hooked on the pills, they move on to heroin. But it’s here that the line begins to blur. When people say “heroin,” it’s become a shorthand, because there’s another, far more deadly drug that’s been introduced into the mix: fentanyl. 
Tim Pifer, the head of the State Police Forensic Lab, says the advent of fentanyl is the most significant development in the overall drug crisis.
“The data supports that more people are dying of fentanyl than the heroin-fentanyl mix,” Pifer said.
Indeed, the introduction of fentanyl, a synthetic and more potent opioid, in the Granite State corresponds with and has been shown to be largely the cause of the rise in deaths. According to the state medical examiner’s office, there had been 342 confirmed drug deaths in 2015 as of Dec. 15. More than 70 cases are still pending. Of the 342, 292 were opioid-related (85 percent), 210 involved fentanyl and 151 involved fentanyl alone. While heroin is certainly dangerous, it pales in comparison. Only 24 of the deaths involved heroin alone.
The State Police Forensic Lab has seen a rise in the fentanyl it’s detected in drug samples sent to it by police forces. In 2013, fentanyl first appeared as only 0.2 percent of all the drugs the lab tested (even then, the ME’s office listed fentanyl among the top three agents of drug deaths). In 2014, it had risen to 2 percent. By August 2015, it was up to 10 percent, tied with cocaine. But that, says Pifer, belies the fact that the heroin portion in those statistics includes the heroin and fentanyl mixtures lab workers increasingly encounter. And, in reality, the mixture is showing increasing amounts of fentanyl.
“We’re getting to the point where it’s almost one-to-one coming in,” Pifer said.
Deaths are already past 2014 levels and are expected to reach more than 400 once all the toxicology testing is done. But deaths are only a sliver of the overall pie. 
In just Manchester alone, the fire department reports 2015 saw 704 overdoses, of which 85 were fatal. The Queen City had 50 overdose deaths last year. The anti-overdose drug Narcan was administered 561 times. 
The peak occurred in September, when first responders went to 102 overdose calls, according to Chris Hickey, the fire department’s EMS officer. 
 
Price drop
A finger of heroin, which is 10 grams, now costs $350 in Manchester. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, it sells for as little as $180. Just two years ago the price was more than twice as high. A finger in Manchester used to cost about $1,000, and in Lawrence it cost $400. This has made it easier for users to get their hands on it, but it also makes the entry cost for new dealers more manageable for lower-income individuals who see this as a way to make money.
 
Crack rebounding
As the Hippo reported in its Nov. 5 cover story, crack cocaine has been on the rise in the Queen City, driven partly by Bronx-based gang members setting up shop here. Crack was a big deal in the ’90s but took a back seat to the heroin crisis. Manchester Police reported having seized about 324 grams of crack through October this year. Most years are under 100 grams and the last time it was this high was 2008.
 
Legislation
A number of bills are being drafted for the 2016 legislative session through a special session that brought together a bipartisan task force of lawmakers from the House and Senate. Gov. Maggie Hassan called originally for a full legislative session, but Republicans countered with the task force committee, which, instead of passing legislation, will write and submit bills for early passage. Many of the items on Hassan’s agenda for crisis legislation were fast-tracked, but Director Tim Soucy at the Manchester Health Department notes those are not the most important bills. The fast-track bills include things like mandatory annual K-12 drug education and making the penalty for selling fentanyl on par with that for selling heroin. Big-ticket items (which require state funding) such as creating a state drug court office and setting aside funding for current and new county drug courts will require more debate to get to a vote. Still, Soucy is optimistic.
“I think the fact that they’re together talking about it is very good,” Soucy said. 





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