SALEM — During a roundtable discussion held at the Salem police station Friday afternoon, state and local law and health professionals agreed that a broad approach is necessary when it comes to stemming the state’s growing heroin epidemic.
Led by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., the meeting was attended by police from several Granite State communities and state Attorney General Joe Foster along with various members of the state’s drug treatment community.
According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (NHDHHS), the number of people admitted to state treatment programs increased 90 percent for heroin use and 500 percent for prescription drug use over the last 10 years, with the largest increases in just the last two years.
Law enforcement officials have also seen a spike in crimes associated with drug use — like burglaries, assaults and property crimes — and according to NHDHHS, 64 people died in heroin-related deaths last year.
According to New Hampshire State Police, the problem has also become apparent during regular traffic patrols, with heroin often the culprit nowadays in impaired-driving arrests.
Salem Police Chief Paul Donovan noted the state statistics are in line with what he’s experiencing each day on the job.
“It’s been nonstop,” he said. “Most of the arrests we’ve been making recently end up involving some type of drug abuse.”
Salem Police Lt. Kevin Fitzgerald said the situation in his community is particularly challenging, with Salem being a border town.
“Lawrence, (Mass.), has been doing a great job lately with its drug enforcement efforts,” Fitzgerald said. “But the side effect is it’s pouring over into Salem. We’re trying to get the manpower to deal with it all.”
Nashua Police Chief John Seusing said drug-related robberies likewise have been on the rise locally since this past summer.
“Right now we’re trying to strike a balance between making arrests of drug dealers while offering resources to those in need of help,” said Corey MacDonald, Portsmouth deputy police chief.
“Heroin is the biggest problem we’re facing right now,” said Scott Sweet of the AG’s Drug Task Force. “And it’s clear we can’t just arrest our way out of it.”
Salem Police prosecutor Jason Grosky said he fears what the coming years might bring if the problem isn’t addressed soon, noting that drug abusers are getting younger.
“We’re seeing a high level of 14- and 15-year-olds that are already hooked on heroin and prescription opiates,” Grosky said. “The number of kids we have on juvenile probation right now is simply astounding: it’s way higher than it was three or four years ago.”
Foster said one goal right now is to work towards the mission of enacting legislation to ensure substance-abuse treatment is covered under the recent changes to state and federal health care, making addiction services more readily available to at-risk populations.
“I know treatment is a very challenging issue,” she said. “Because right now we don’t have enough professionals or enough facilities.”
Annette Escalante of the Keystone Hall treatment facility in Nashua, said she feels hopeful about the recent implications of the state’s Medicaid expansion, but worries about meeting the growing demands.
Dr. Seddon Savage, a researcher at the Dartmouth Center on Addiction, Recovery & Education who also serves on the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, stressed the importance of making long-term patient maintenance a priority while developing a treatment plan to help avoid relapses.
State health officials also emphasized the need to approach addiction from a different perspective, treating it as a disease rather than a crime.
Current statistics estimate somewhere between 75 to 95 percent of the state’s prison population has some type of substance abuse problem.
“I think it’s important that drug dealers are dealt with harshly,” Seusing said. “But as for the ones committing crimes in the name of their addictions, they need to be treated.”