MONTPELIER, Vt. — A rise in heroin abuse in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire is being blamed partly on aggressive marketing by out-of-state drug dealers and the higher cost of prescription drugs sold illegally on the streets.
In Vermont, Rutland Police Chief James Baker calls the spike in heroin use “mind boggling.” Manchester Police Chief David Mara says he’s seen a definite “uptick” in heroin cases in New Hampshire’s largest city.
In Maine, Portland is reporting terrible consequences from increased heroin use — 14 drug overdoses in a single month, including four in one 24-hour period. One person died of a suspected overdose.
The outbreak has been so bad in Portland it prompted a community warning from police, fire and health officials.
Vermont’s U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin blames simple economic forces.
“If you get addicted to prescription pills, it’s really hard financially to keep that up,” he said. “Heroin is cheaper.”
Coffin is leading federal, state and local officers in a crackdown and warns dealers there will be serious consequences for them in the hunt for easy profits. Special multi-agency teams have been set up to share information and target offenders while also stepping up educational efforts and treatment programs.
Coffin said authorities saw the crisis coming as far back as 2009 when experts on opiate addiction sounded a warning at a meeting in Vermont.
Officials with the Maine Drug Enforcement Administration say the agency also anticipated users would switch from prescription narcotics to heroin because of a diminishing supply of prescription drugs on the streets.
“That’s been a concern for a good number of years,” said agency Director Roy McKinney. “We’re talking about opiates, whether it’s synthetic coming through pharmacies or from heroin. Those people who’re addicted to that drug — they’re going to go wherever there’s the least resistance to satisfy their dependence.”
In Manchester, Mara suspects the surge in heroin cases was fed by oxycodone and painkiller addicts who switched to heroin because they can no longer afford to buy pills on the streets. An 80 milligram tablet sells for about $80 compared to a bag of heroin that costs about $15, he said.
Anthony Pettigrew of Boston, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency office for New England, said no single factor explains why heroin abuse has spiked but he agrees users are switching from prescription pills to heroin and dealers are aggressively marketing the drug.
“As people see the cost of getting a painkilling opiate go up, sometimes they look for heroin as a cheaper alternative,” Pettigrew said. “The other area is profit. People are going to try to make money on selling heroin.
“So if they can move heroin from New York or Philly or Boston or Lowell and Lawrence up into Vermont and make a significant profit, they are going to do that,” Pettigrew said.
In the past, heroin arrived in Maine in prepackaged one-dose bags. Now law enforcement officials say they are seeing larger amounts coming into the state, where the drug is then milled and packaged, McKinney said.
Earlier this month, Kennebec County officials seized 3 ounces of heroin, the equivalent of about 4,000 doses. Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said it was the largest seizure he’d seen in 20 years.
In Vermont, police have been arresting suspected dealers with large amounts of heroin, cash and in some cases guns. Most of the drugs come from New York or other East Coast cities, from western Massachusetts, or farther away from Detroit and Chicago.
Baker said opiate addiction in the Rutland area is the worst he’s seen in his 35 years of policing.
Vermont health officials are making it easier for people to get methadone services through existing centers, many of which are being expanded while new ones are opening up.
State Deputy Health Commissioner Barbara Cimaglio said, “We’re creating a more integrated network, which will result in better treatment, more capacity and more comprehensive services.”