NEWBURYPORT — The city has a heroin problem, a fact city police marshals and mayors have been combating for decades. But for many residents, the idea that their tranquil tourist attraction of a city has been waging an uphill battle against a scourge that kills people, destroys families, causes addicts to break into homes and steal from their loved ones is easy to dismiss.
In recent months, however, that illusion has been shattered for many, as the city’s police department has made a series of high-profile heroin arrests. Add to the unsettling sight of used syringes and needles found in playgrounds and reports of addicts shooting up in public places such as the city’s rail trail, it’s becoming easier to see that the problems of heroin abuse and sales is spreading.
Last night, Mayor Donna Holaday, City Marshal Thomas Howard, Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins Jr. and other community leaders came together to shed even more light on heroin use and its sale during a public forum at City Hall.
About 50 people attended last night’s panel discussion, organized by Holaday; and if there was one central message relayed by the panel, it was that it takes a community willing to discuss the issue and attack the issue to make a difference.
“We can’t arrest our way out of the problem, it’s not going to happen,” Blodgett said, adding that until a community raises its level of awareness, it can’t deal with heroin addiction in a constructive way.
What’s more important than putting people in prison, he said, is talking to your children about heroin and drug use starting when they are in fifth grade. By the time they’ve reached middle school, it can be too late.
Cousins said about 90 percent of those in the Essex County House of Corrections has a drug- or alcohol-related problem and 70 percent of those in jail committed a drug- or alcohol-related crime. His goal is to keep as many people out of jail as possible and into treatment centers where they can get help on demand.
But as fellow panelist Newburyport Youth and Recreational Director Andi Egmond pointed out minutes later, there aren’t enough beds available for those who need on-demand help.
In his brief comments, Howard said his department has seen a rise in hepatitis C cases related to shared needle use and implored anyone who finds a needle in a city park or playground to call his department so that an officer can dispose of it properly.
He also spoke about the importance of removing unused prescription drugs from medicine cabinets and disposing of them inside the station’s drug box. Keeping unwanted prescription drugs out of the hands of children and young adults is a constructive way of stopping drug abuse early, he said.
So far this year, police have responded to 20 drug overdoses, with most of them surviving. And while police have been successful in arresting drug addicts who are combing the streets looking for their next fix so they can simply feel good for a few hours, it’s the drug users who aren’t as noticeable who are better able to elude the authorities, Howard said.
After the forum, Blodgett said the county had seen some progress in taking heroin off the streets, but over the last few years heroin use has spiked again, in part because people haven’t been talking about it as much.
“We haven’t kept that conversation going, so every half-generation of kids knows it’s just not acceptable. And it’s got to be the fifth grade. Because that’s when they’re socially aware and that’s when they start making decisions and that’s when you have to make them understand that it’s just not a decision that they can make. I tell them this when I speak to them in schools. I say, ‘you start doing heroin or drugs like that, there are two things that are going to happen — you’re going to go to jail or you’re going to die,’” Blodgett said.
The city’s efforts could become even more difficult, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently urged tightened restrictions on how doctors prescribe narcotic painkillers such as Vicodin and other medications containing acetaminophen and hydrocodone, an opioid pain medication related to the more powerful and highly addictive painkiller OxyContin.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdose death rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990 and have never been higher. In 2008, more than 36,000 people died from drug overdoses, and most of those deaths were caused by prescription drugs.
Police officials say many heroin users first become addicted to OxyContin; but because of the extremely high cost of the drug, they often switch to heroin, which is far cheaper and easier to obtain.
Blodgett said it was too early to tell whether a tightened grip on hydrocodone prescription could lead to a spike in heroin sales.
“Will it lead to more heroin? I just don’t know. I pray it doesn’t because we’re really suffering in terms of this issue,” Blodgett said.
Last night’s forum comes a little more than 48 hours after police arrested an 18-year-old High Street man with what they believe were two needles filled with drugs. Police are investigating whether the clear liquid inside the needles is heroin.
As the result of a traffic stop inside a Highland Avenue parking lot, Oliver C. Strattner was charged Saturday afternoon with possession of a class A substance, receiving stolen property, forgery of a document (a personal check) and motor vehicle charges. Strattner was arraigned in Newburyport District Court yesterday and is out on personal recognizance pending a pretrial hearing scheduled for Dec. 16.
An inventory of his Volkswagen Beetle, conducted before the car was towed away, resulted in the seizure of two syringes filled with a clear liquid and drug paraphernalia including cotton balls, a small metal fork, a small knife, straws and Q-Tips. Samples of the liquid were collected in a test tube and will be analyzed, according to local police.
By Howard’s estimate, if found guilty, Strattner would fall into the average age of drug abusers in the city, between 15 and 25 years old. In some cases, children as young as 14 are using heroin and other drugs, Howard added.
Bottom line, Howard said, was not to trust your children. “Investigate, be inquisitive, do your homework,” Howard said.