Cheap, Plentiful, Deadly: Police See Heroin ‘Epidemic’ in Region

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  • Small packages of heroin, called bundles, are enclosed in an evidence bag at the Hartford Police Station. The drugs were confiscated through a search warrant.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Small packages of heroin, called bundles, are enclosed in an evidence bag at the Hartford Police Station. The drugs were confiscated through a search warrant. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

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  • Spoons used to cooked heroin are enclosed in an evidence bag at the Hartford Police Station. The drugs were confiscated through a search warrant. Cotton, used as a strainer for the heroin, sits on the spoon.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Spoons used to cooked heroin are enclosed in an evidence bag at the Hartford Police Station. The drugs were confiscated through a search warrant. Cotton, used as a strainer for the heroin, sits on the spoon. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Attorney Elizabeth Kruska, right, talks with her client Jose Rodriguez, of Cabot, Vt., during his arraignment in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt.,  for a charge of heroin trafficking on Feb. 5, 2014.<br/> (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Attorney Elizabeth Kruska, right, talks with her client Jose Rodriguez, of Cabot, Vt., during his arraignment in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., for a charge of heroin trafficking on Feb. 5, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Samantha Eldred, of Cabot, Vt., looks to a relative in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., while being arraigned on a heroine trafficking charge Wednesday, February 5, 2014. Eldred's attorney Jordana Levine is at right. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Samantha Eldred, of Cabot, Vt., looks to a relative in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., while being arraigned on a heroine trafficking charge Wednesday, February 5, 2014. Eldred's attorney Jordana Levine is at right.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Small packages of heroin, called bundles, are enclosed in an evidence bag at the Hartford Police Station. The drugs were confiscated through a search warrant.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Spoons used to cooked heroin are enclosed in an evidence bag at the Hartford Police Station. The drugs were confiscated through a search warrant. Cotton, used as a strainer for the heroin, sits on the spoon.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Attorney Elizabeth Kruska, right, talks with her client Jose Rodriguez, of Cabot, Vt., during his arraignment in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt.,  for a charge of heroin trafficking on Feb. 5, 2014.<br/> (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Samantha Eldred, of Cabot, Vt., looks to a relative in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., while being arraigned on a heroine trafficking charge Wednesday, February 5, 2014. Eldred's attorney Jordana Levine is at right. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

White River Junction — Just about every case that Hartford police Detective Chris Aher works these days is related to heroin.

Armed robberies. Home burglaries. Larceny. Never mind all of the incidents of heroin possession and dealing. The people struggling with addiction are everywhere, he said.

“I can go out and bump into 10 people within an hour,” Aher said Tuesday.

And they won’t all look like your stereotypical addict, disheveled and homeless with track marks on the crook of their arm where they have repeatedly stabbed a syringe.

Today, the people who are injecting the highly potent narcotic into their bodies span all demographics, many of them middle class, otherwise upstanding members in their communities.

Opiate addiction in the Twin States, and indeed the entire nation, has received an increasing amount of attention from law enforcement and public health officials. Until recently, the focus largely has been on abuse of prescription painkillers. But there has been a startling shift within the underground drug market toward heroin and the drug, long associated with the urban underclass, now seems to be everywhere.

Last month, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin made national headlines when he dedicated his entire State of the State address to the opiate addiction “crisis.” He cited alarming statistics about the rise in treatment for all opiates and overdose deaths from heroin. Then, as the nation settled down to watch last week’s Super Bowl, many were shocked to learn that Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died at the age of 46 from an apparent heroin overdose.

Law enforcement officials in the Twin States say they encounter heroin daily, most of it coming from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York City. A week ago, Vermont State Police stopped Eugenia Emerson, 33, of Springfield, Vt., while she was driving north on Interstate 91 in Westminster, Vt., and allegedly found 690 bags of heroin in her car. The drugs were beneath the rear seat cushion where her 5-year-old child was sitting, police said.

Four days later, State Police stopped another car on I-91 in Springfield and allegedly seized 740 bags of heroin with a street value estimated at $15,000. Jose Rodriguez and Samantha Eldred, both of Cabot, Vt., have been charged with trafficking heroin. Authorities said they were driving to Barre, Vt., from Hartford, Conn.

In the Upper Valley, police departments in Hartford and Lebanon had significantly more arrests for sale and possession of heroin in 2013 than in previous years, and overdose deaths have risen on both sides of the Connecticut River.

This is not the first time heroin has appeared in this area. The last “heroin bubble” was about 10 years ago, said Matthew Birmingham, commander of the Vermont State Police Drug Task Force. But the severity of the current “epidemic” in Northern New England is much greater than it was then. A decade ago, a large seizure might amount to a couple of hundred bags, Birmingham said. Now, it’s more like several thousand. Last October, Burlington police seized 9,000 bags of heroin that had been brought up from New York. Valued at $126,000, the entire supply would have sold in a week, Birmingham said.

Vermont and New Hampshire are lucrative markets for dealers, law enforcement officials say. A postage stamp-sized bag that costs $5 in New York will go for three times that around here. Yet, heroin is still a cheaper alternative to prescription painkillers that sell for $30 to $45 a pill on the street. The painkiller Percocet is believed to have been at the center of a shooting in Bethel in 2011 that left one man dead and a teenager critically wounded. Police say Tunbridge resident Emily Y. Perkins took painkillers from the deceased man’s home, sending out text messages afterwards that read “got thirties for forty,” referring to 30 milligram pills that she planned to sell for $40.

Heroin’s resurgence has been fast and fierce. The market factors behind it have changed, but there is something familiar about the current moment, said Ben Nordstrom, director of addiction services at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. “We may be entering yet another peak in a cycle that has been going for more than a century, each generation of users having to discover the dangers of the drug on their own.

“People forget that these drugs are dangerous and illegal for a reason,” Nordstrom said. “This is just a continuation of a very old pattern of heroin ebbing and flowing in our culture.”

‘A Wonder Drug’

Heroin evokes images in the popular imagination of drug lords, dirty needles and junkies wandering city streets. But in the late 19th century, it was considered a wonder drug.

Developed by the pharmaceutical industry, heroin was used as a pain reliever and sold as a product similar to aspirin.

“They actually marketed them together,” Nordstrom said. “There are lots of old marketing materials that show aspirin and heroin as new Bayer products and encouraging people to prescribe and use these. It was a wonder drug. It was thought to be a terrific cough suppressant.”

The drug was synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from poppy plants. Heroin works quickly and creates intense euphoria, latching onto the areas of the brain involved in the perception of pain and in reward. It also is more addictive than other opioids, such as Oxycodone, or any other illicit drug, Nordstrom said.

Heroin hasn’t been used medically in the United States for many decades, but its recreational use has persisted. It is a powder, typically white or light beige in color, sold in small units — about 20 to 30 milligrams — and wrapped in paper packets, or “bags,” that are folded into a square the size of a postage stamp.

Often, the bags are stamped with a “brand.” Hartford detectives have come across bags, some in pink paper and others white, marked with a skull and two knives inserted at angles like crossbones. The brand is “Death Row.” Others are stamped with a blue Nike “swoosh.”

Heroin can be snorted or smoked, but most users inject the drug because it delivers a more intense high, law enforcement officials said. In this method, the powder is mixed with a small amount of water to create a slurry, usually in a spoon, and then “cooked” over a flame. Then, the liquid is drawn into a syringe and injected into the user’s vein.

Though chemically similar to prescription opioids, heroin poses a much greater health threat, Nordstrom said. Not only is it more addictive, but the purity of the product sold on the street varies widely. One bag of powder might be 16 percent pure while another is 60 percent pure, Nordstrom said.

“The person who is buying and using the heroin never knows how much heroin is actually in the drug that they are consuming,” he said.

“So, if suddenly, there is an increase in the purity of heroin, it’s very easy to have an accidental overdose and death as a result.”

There are times when heroin is cut with another drug.

One particularly dangerous mix is heroin and fentanyl, another opioid that health care providers use to put someone to sleep very quickly. It is 50 times more potent than heroin, according to public health officials, and though tightly regulated, fentanyl occasionally finds its way into heroin supplies.

Public health officials are blaming a fentanyl-laced batch of heroin for at least 22 deaths in western Pennsylvania recently. Upper Valley law enforcement officials say they have not seen tainted heroin in this area, although the Vermont Health Department last week blamed the deaths of three Addison County people on the use of pure fentanyl that had been sold as heroin.

Heroin overdose deaths have climbed in both states.

In New Hampshire, at least 64 people died as a result of a heroin overdose in 2013, according to preliminary numbers from the Office of Chief Medical Examiner. That number will certainly rise, however, when the state resolves several dozen cases that are still pending, said Kim Fallon, the state’s chief forensic investigator. In 2012, there were 38 heroin-related deaths.

Vermont has seen an increase, too, with heroin-related deaths nearly doubling in number, from nine to 17, between 2012 and 2013. However, while heroin deaths appear to be on the rise, Vermont health officials said they were not drawing any conclusions from the numbers just yet.

Law enforcement officials have concluded that this region has become a hot market for heroin in the Northeast.

“We’re seeing out-of-state criminal groups targeting Vermont because it’s such a lucrative market,” Birmingham said.

‘Whack-a-Mole’

The last time heroin was on the rise in Vermont was 10 or 15 years ago, Birmingham said. But the scope of the problem then is dwarfed by what is happening now.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, local dealers were driving down to Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York to buy product cheaply and then coming back north to sell it at premium prices. A typical seizure was 100 to 200 bags, Birmingham said.

“Today, 5,000 bags is a common seizure,” he said.

Heroin faded in the latter part of the decade as a different form of opiates took over. Painkillers such as OxyContin were widely available, diverted from the abundant supplies physicians were prescribing for people with chronic pain. From 1997 to 2007, the use of prescription opioids in the U.S. increased more than 400 percent and overdose deaths were becoming frequent, according to a White House report in 2011. It was the nation’s fastest growing drug problem.

Prescription drug abuse remains a major concern, but the growing awareness of the problem has led to steps to control it. In 2010, drug makers reformulated OxyContin so that it could not be crushed and snorted. When ground up, the pills essentially turned into a gooey mess. “It worked,” Birmingham said. “We don’t ever see it anymore on the street.”

States began tracking drugs through digital databases of the millions of prescriptions filled for their residents. Vermont has a prescription monitoring system and New Hampshire is developing one now. They are aimed at curtailing abuse by alerting pharmacies when patients frequent a certain number of pharmacies or prescribers, which might indicate that they are shopping around for more pills than they need to treat their pain.

Also, physicians have been cracking down on their prescribing practices. Last week, Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont began a new policy in its emergency department that it would not give painkillers to patients seeking it for anything other than an acute problem.

“If a patient has a chronic pain history, we will not treat that (with painkillers),” said Tracy Pike, the nurse manager in Valley Regional’s ER. “Their chronic pain issue needs to be treated by someone’s primary care physician or pain specialist.”

Prescription painkillers still are highly sought after on the street. After all, users know what they are getting with a pill manufactured by a regulated pharmaceutical company, while the quality of the heroin supply ranges widely, Nordstrom said.

But, for economic reasons, many people with addictions are forced to switch to heroin. A single Percocet pill sold on the underground market costs up to $45. A single bag of heroin is half the price. Indeed, prescription painkillers are a gateway to heroin, according to law enforcement and health officials.

“We’re seeing an influx of heroin now because it’s cheaper to buy than the prescription painkillers,” said Enfield Police Chief Richard Crate.

That is how Mark began using heroin. Mark, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used to protect his privacy, started using OxyContin as a teenager about 10 years ago. After a couple years, his habit became too expensive and he started on heroin.

“The pills weren’t cutting it and they were getting more and more and more every day,” he said.

He used heroin and pills together for many years after that until OxyContin was reformulated and he could no longer grind it up and snort it. Finding more heroin was never difficult, he said.

“When you’re using, you surround yourself with people who are using so you can always find more,” he said.

Mark said he has been sober now for two years.

Heroin’s affordability may also have something to do with increased supply on the market. The amounts of heroin coming to the United States, mostly from Mexico, have increased significantly, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The amount of heroin seized each year at the Southwest border increased 232 percent between 2008 and 2012.

A sizable portion of that supply is making its way to the Northeast. Fifty-five percent of law enforcement officials surveyed in New England reported “high heroin availability” in their jurisdictions in 2013, according to the DEA report, up from 40 percent five years before.

Last year, 343 grams of heroin were seized in Vermont, according to law enforcement records. That is a 247 percent increase from 2012.

Just as Vermont seemed to be addressing prescription drug abuse — the number of annual deaths related to prescription opioids remained relatively stable between 2005 and 2012 — heroin came surging back.

“It’s like whack-a-mole,” Birmingham said. “You push down one problem and it pops up some place else.”

Being at the junction of two interstates has made the Upper Valley a convenient place for drug traffickers, said Brad Vail, Hartford’s deputy chief of police. This region is not a “hub” for drug activity, he said, nor is the problem any more pronounced here than elsewhere in the state.

But, if the local market is on par with other regions, that still means heroin is everywhere and being used by all kinds of people. They are young and single, middle-aged and married, men and women with families. Their common ground is an opiate addiction.

“You can have a regular citizen that you wouldn’t expect would be using heroin that is using heroin because they can’t afford the medication,” Vail said.

And they, too, may also be turning to crime to feed their habit.

“Everyone is seeing the same thing,” said Claremont Police Chief Alex Scott. “An increase in robberies, property crimes, and it’s related to opiate addiction. … Market forces have pushed it back to heroin.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher @ v news.com.