By Jill Harmacinski
---- — In at least two area communities, heroin overdoses dropped in February, the same month local, state and federal detectives conducted a special raid in the hopes of getting a dangerous batch of the illegal drug off the streets.
Statistics compiled by the Methuen Police Department show that in November 2013 there were 14 heroin overdoses, followed by four heroin overdoses in December and 14 overdoses in January 2014. However, just two heroin overdoses were reported on Feb. 1 and Feb. 27 respectively, according to the report.
So far in March, just a single overdose was reported and that happened early Monday afternoon, according to Methuen police.
Police in Salem, N.H. report a similar slow down. A woman died at Red Roof Inn on Feb. 13 from an apparent heroin overdose. Since then, six overdoses were reported but only one involved heroin, said Deputy Chief Shawn Patten.
Area law enforcement blamed the rash of overdoses on heroin laced with fentanyl, a synthetic drug introduced in the 1960s as an intravenous anesthetic. Fentanyl is stronger than morphine, another painkiller used for extreme pain. The local trend was mirrored nationally in an alarming spike.
On Feb. 6, in response to the deadly threat, detectives from the Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts State Police and FBI conducted an operation to step on the drug. Thirty arrests were made in Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill, including local residents and from Somerville, Medford, North Conway, N.H. and Fryeburg, Maine.
Police are unsure if the stepped up enforcement or publicity contributed to the overdose decline. Or if a dangerous batch of drugs simply ran its course and out of circulation in the area.
“It’s probably a little bit of everything,” said Methuen Police Capt. Kristopher McCarthy. “Honestly, I think a bad batch ran its course.”
Patten, in Salem, N.H., said “hopefully, that bad batch has passed.”
“The stepped-up law enforcement efforts have helped out as well. Obviously, getting the word out about some dangerous stuff going on more than likely helped out a lot,” Patten said.
While overdoses may have slowed down, heroin use and illegal trade remain a high priority in Lawrence. On nearly a daily basis, seven officers assigned to the police department’s “Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit” are making drug arrests, with more than 80 percent of the charges involving heroin, said Police Capt. Roy Vasque.
“I don’t see any slow down,” said Vasque, noting the unit made 222 arrests in January and February this year. That’s 61 more arrests during the same time period in January and February 2013, he said.
Vasque said if the street unit was bigger “we’d be making even more arrests.”
After the spike in heroin overdoses, area police chiefs met and arranged the Feb. 6 high intensity “displacement” operation, which was aimed at halting heroin sales and averting the overdoses. It was unclear, however, how the tainted heroin arrived in the area and who the top supplier was.
Heroin sells locally for $60 to $80 per gram, with a half gram running at about $40. Detectives said the more heroin you buy often results in a reduction in price.
Late last month, Massachusetts state police released statistics that indicated 185 died of heroin overdoses during the past four months. However, the report did not include overdoses in Boston, Springfield and Worcester, the state’s three largest cities.
Several factors contributed to the fatal overdose increase, including suppliers who cut heroin with fentanyl, according to state police.
New Hampshire Editor Jo-Anne MacKenzie contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used in this report.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.