EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 29, 2014

Three Salem overdoses raise concerns

Police say tainted drugs could be the cause

By Jo-Anne MacKenzie

---- — SALEM — Three people overdosed on possibly tainted narcotics within 24 hours, Deputy police Chief Shawn Patten said.

A Haverhill, Mass., woman was fighting for her life in a Boston hospital after she and a male companion were found unconscious and not breathing in a car on Ticklefancy Lane Monday afternoon, he said.

The unidentified woman, 20, was in a coma yesterday. Her companion, a 21-year-old man from Salem, was hospitalized in stable condition.

At 1:30 p.m. yesterday, fire department paramedics revived an unconscious 21-year-old man on Bluff Street. Police believe he, too, may have ingested tainted narcotics, Patten said. He was an acquaintance of the two people who overdosed Monday, he said.

The drugs could be heroin, cocaine, a combination or other substances being sold as heroin, Patten said.

Three people overdosed on heroin last week in Portsmouth and a 37-year-old man died as a result.

That prompted Portsmouth police to issue their first public warning to heroin users about highly potent or tainted heroin.

Patten stopped short of doing that, but said his detectives were reaching out to other regional law enforcement agencies who have seen similar cases.

The state has seen a spike in heroin use, overdoses and deaths.

Sixty-one people died of heroin doses in New Hampshire last year, a big increase over the 38 heroin deaths in 2013, according to Kim Fallon, chief forensic investigator for the state medical examiner.

It’s a number that sends shudders throughout the Granite State.

“Heroin is our number one drug, based on low price and easy availability,” Patten said yesterday. “I don’t think it’s just a Salem issue. I think it’s widespread. It’s clearly an issue in this area and probably not confined to this region.”

As heroin use increases, so do theft-related crimes, he said.

“We have a problem. Obviously, we’ve seen a spike, as have many others, in the drug trade and issues associated with it,” Patten said. “Robberies, burglaries, theft, shoplifting have gone up dramatically. Not every case, but a majority of thefts are fueled by drug habits.”

The number of drug offenses in Salem has increased about 30 percent in the past two years, he said.

In 2011, Salem had 530 drug offenses. That rose to 648 in 2012 and 748 in 2013, Patten said.

“It isn’t anything any other community around here isn’t experiencing. I think a lot of answers are bigger than a local issue,” he said. “Education, enforcement, punishment are all part of it. A lot of heroin addictions start as prescription pill addictions, so there’s a whole other broader issue of prescription drugs leading to heroin addiction.”

No charges have been filed in the three recent overdoses, Patten said, but that could change.

“For now, the investigation is young and it’s too early to speak on that. Clearly, we’re investigating heroin possession, but our first concern is who’s selling it, where they purchased it,” he said. “We have concerns for the health of the person who ingested it and that could lead to a broader investigation.”

Police believe the two people found in the car at 12 Ticklefancy Lane Monday afternoon, as well as a third companion, bought heroin in Lawrence, then snorted it on the way to Salem.

Police are not releasing the names of those involved until relatives can be notified.

Yesterday, Salem police and fire were called to 161 Bluff St. for a 21-year-old man unconscious and not breathing.

Paramedics performed “lifesaving measures” and took the man to a local hospital. Patten said yesterday he believed the man would recover.

Most overdoes police in Salem see are from individuals using too much of a drug or using it too often, he said. But, police do see tainted drugs from time to time, he said.

“We’re working with all areas that have had these overdoses,” Patten said. “We can’t confirm it’s the same stuff, but when it pops up in the same general area, we believe it’s potentially from the same source.”

Police from Salem and from across the Merrimack Valley are meeting in Andover, Mass., today to discuss the issue.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.