MANCHESTER, NH – When a news agency from across the pond does a story about your hometown, you know it’s either going to be something really good or really bad.
This is really bad.
On Dec. 21 the BBC published a two-part video report on New Hampshire’s heroin epidemic, calling us “first in the nation” when it comes to the current drug addiction crisis.
The report includes statistics that are all too familiar to those here who have been following along – that drug-related deaths were up 68 percent in 2014, straining emergency and court systems; that 32 percent of young people reported using illicit drugs in 2014 (third-highest among the 50 states); and that New Hampshire ranks 49th among all of the United States of America for treatment options.
They also report that out of 100,000 residents who meet treatment requirements, “tax-free” New Hampshire can only serve 5,000.
And that is just based on last year’s statistics.
Nashua Fire and Rescue Lt. Jessica Wyman talks about the everyday challenges of treating overdose victims. She said they are beginning to see an increase in suicides – up 10 percent among people 18-25, many of whom see no other way out of their addiction.
She also talked about the need to increase the dosage of Narcan needed to revive someone who’s overdosed, which speaks to the purity of the drug on the street, how much they’re using to get high, and what the heroin is being “mixed” with, primarily fentanyl.
When asked how big the problem is here, Hillsborough County South Superior Court Judge Jaclyn Colburn says “It’s stunningly huge,” and talks about the frustration in seeing repeat offenders who return to her court room after serving a jail sentences, still addicted, still looking for a way out.
Jail serves an important function in the criminal justice system, Colburn says, but it’s not treatment, and doesn’t solve heroin addiction.
Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas is featured several times throughout the report, emphasizing the need for action rather than talk. He calls addiction a disease, and says if any other disease were claiming this many victims in this time frame, it would be called an epidemic, and there would be action, rather than lip service.
“If this has not affected you yet, it will. It’s affecting an awful lot of people in this community that understand that Johnny or Sally, who was hooked on heroin, was one of the leaders of their class when they were in school, and it’s not just that junkie on the street,” Gatsas says.
On Tuesday, Gatsas talked about the BBC report, and said it was filmed about three weeks ago. He was happy that drug court got good play in the report, as it provides an alternative to incarceration and can lead to treatment and rehabilitation for those who qualify.
As he looks forward to a new year, Gatsas says the city will continue to promote its “Not Even Once” campaign, which rolled out in the fall including distribution of book covers and wristbands to local school students.
The target audience is young people who have not yet started using.
“We need to get it out to the public so people understand it is a disease. People are hearing about it and talking about it, even presidential candidates are talking about it. Now we need to raise the level of awareness,” Gatsas says.
Although the focus has been on the need for recovery beds here, Gatsas says it’s time to up the penalties for those caught dealing heroin cut with fentanyl, a potent and deadly mixture. Gatsas noted fentanyl is now the leading cause of drug deaths here based on the most recent statistics available from the state – of 320 confirmed drug deaths, 199 were due to fentanyl.
“I understand the task force that came together has made fentanyl equal to heroin in penalties. We need to go farther, and say that those caught dealing fentanyl or selling fentanyl should be arrested for attempted murder. If you don’t stop it there, you can’t create enough beds to help people, they won’t make it to a bed because they’re already in a coffin.”