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Heroin deaths top highway fatalities in NH

Sunday News Correspondent

April 11. 2015 8:32PM

DOVER - Heroin and other drugs are now killing more people than traffic accidents in New Hampshire.

It's a statistic that has startled lawmakers and the state's law enforcement and medical communities.

And it's the reason why more than 250 medical, municipal, law enforcement and recovery professionals and community members concerned about loved ones gathered on the Seacoast Friday to search for answers. The Opioid Taskforce of Strafford County hosted "New Hampshire Heroin Summit: Overdose of Truth and Hope for Solutions" at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital.

It was the fourth year of the drug summit, but the first time heroin was the big topic. Friday's turnout was also the largest ever.

Communities large and small are on the frontlines of a heroin epidemic that killed nearly 100 people in New Hampshire last year.

Farmington Police Chief Jay Drury said his town had seven drug deaths in the last six months alone and his officers investigate one or two overdoses a week in the town of just under 7,000 residents.

"It's hitting our town very hard," he said.

According to the latest statistics from the state medical examiner's office, New Hampshire recorded 321 drug-related deaths in 2014.

There may be more, but the state is still awaiting the results of toxicology tests in other deaths.

Of those 321 deaths, 97 were caused by heroin alone or a combination of heroin and other drugs. Another 143 of those deaths were related to the painkiller fentanyl, either by itself or combined with other drugs.

In 39 cases, heroin and fentanyl appeared together.

While much of the focus has been on heroin deaths, officials said the use of fentanyl is also becoming a big problem.

Dr. Thomas Andrew, the state's medical examiner, has seen that firsthand.

"We've seen an evolution of that trend in just these last 12 to 14 months. Initially we were seeing heroin and fentanyl mixed together, but spring into summer of 2014 we saw many more cases of fentanyl alone. It's illicitly produced in clandestine laboratories. It's a lot cheaper to produce than heroin," said Andrew, who has seen drug deaths skyrocket from about 40 a year when he became medical examiner in 1997 to more than 300 a year now.

What to do?

The state Legislature is considering bills to address some of the drug problems, but summit organizers said more needs to be done.

Melissa Silvey, a member of the Opioid Taskforce of Strafford County and director of public health and substance misuse prevention at Goodwin Community Health, said the state needs to better fund prevention and treatment.

She stressed the need for more community-based treatment and intensive outpatient programs.

One good thing, she said, is that more people want their voices heard.

"The recovery community has always been kind of in the church basement, but they're coming out loud and strong and they're not scared to mention their name. They don't want to be anonymous anymore. Those are voters. Those are people that need to start rallying and educating and that's the transition we've never seen in New Hampshire," Silvey said.

Strafford County Attorney Tom Velardi said his office receives about three overdose cases a week, most involving heroin and fentanyl.

The county experienced 30 drug deaths last year.

"It's a huge law enforcement issue. It's a huge medical issue. Folks are coming into the criminal justice system because there's nowhere else to go," Velardi said.

Velardi said more services need to be made available to stop someone from getting to the point where they're passed out in a grocery store parking lot and ending up arrested.

"Most of the people I see are good people, but they got into this medical cycle of addiction and then they end up criminalized," he said.

Lara Willard, an Opioid Taskforce of Strafford County member and director of community relations for Goodwin Community Health, said it's important to move past the criminal stigma.

"We're trying to facilitate stakeholders in our community to come together and start talking about the solutions and turning the page over from talking about the crime to talking about how we're going to solve this problem," she said.

Any NH family

Parent Rebecca Throop of Lee voiced her concerns about how some parents simply aren't willing to accept the fact that any kid, from the straight A student to the star athlete, could become the next addict.

"I think that parents in general don't want to acknowledge or admit, because it's terrifying, that any child is susceptible to becoming addicted and that the No. 1 place that kids are getting alcohol and specifically prescription drugs is out of the parents' medicine cabinets," she said.

Throop, who beat her own battle with alcohol, said she feels too many parents are afraid to start a dialogue with their child because it's an unknown world - unless they've experienced drug and alcohol abuse.

After learning about her son and stepson's drug addictions about four years ago, Lynn Fuller decided to take action.

The drug addiction began with opiates and progressed to heroin.

"When I learned of my son's heroin addiction it was like somebody died. This was the biggest Russian roulette game I had ever encountered and I was scared to death," said Fuller, who attended the summit.

With her sons in long-term recovery, the Farmington woman formed a support group for families of addicts called Circle Hope a year ago.

Fuller said she felt that if she expected her sons, now 28 and 29, to get support then she needed to do the same thing.

"I felt that we were helpless, hopeless and very much alone and the stigma related to it kept us in our shell," she said.

Finding solutions

After overcoming their addictions, John Eldredge of Dover and Andrew West of Newmarket realized the need for long-term care to help addicts and co-founded Bonfire Recovery Services last year. The men's sober living house based in Dover offers a 12-step program to help those with drug and alcohol addictions.

West has been in recovery from alcohol abuse for 10 years while Eldredge, who was addicted to alcohol, heroin and other drugs, has been clean for three years.

Their facility is self-funded. West said they "couldn't wait for the state to make it happen" so they invested their money in the house.

"We did it ourselves. I sold most of what I owned, most of my belongings, and said, 'We're going to do this.' John was able to do this same. It's our lives," West added.

The facility gives recovering addicts a place to continue receiving treatment, oftentimes after they've completed a 28-day detox program.

Eldredge said a key part of the program is the peer support.

"We have the accountability and we have the structure and the house rules, curfews and drug testing, but really where they benefit the most is they have a house full of peers that are going through the exact same thing. The guys that have been there for five or six months already grab the new guys and help them through that first month. The sense of community is huge. They all want to be there and they want to help each other out," he said.

Eldredge, 35, started drinking when he was about 12 and quickly turned to marijuana and prescription drugs. He dropped out of high school in ninth grade.

After years of struggling with his addictions, Eldredge got clean and sobered up in 2006, went back to school and got married.

But after about five years in recovery, his wife, who also fought drugs and mental health issues, committed suicide, he said.

Eldredge said he relapsed after his wife's death but got back on track three years ago.

"I couldn't live that way anymore. . I was lucky and fortunate enough to be able to be insured to get the treatment and be supported by the recovery community that showed me how to live a life and change my life to be consistent with someone who is not in active addiction," he said.

Eldredge is now a few weeks away from getting his master's degree in social work from the University of New Hampshire.

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