DERRY — Like many of his counterparts in the Derry police roll call room Wednesday, Bedford Police Chief John Bryfonski didn't need to look at the numbers, charts and graphs before him to know heroin use in New Hampshire has reached what officials term epidemic status.
"When we have people shooting up in the parking lot of Target in Bedford at two in the afternoon, we have a problem," said Bryfonski, who along with dozens of law enforcement officials from throughout southern New Hampshire, attended a roundtable discussion yesterday on heroin and prescription drug abuse in the Granite State. Personnel from Hooksett, Windham, Pelham, Rochester, Dover, Hampstead, Raymond, Hudson, Pelham, Claremont, the New Hampshire State Police, UNH campus police and the Rockingham and Strafford county sheriff departments took part in the discussion, hosted by Derry Police Chief Ed Garrone and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) at Derry police headquarters.
"The increase in use is so dramatic," said Shaheen. "The deaths reflect the usage that is out there, and the extent of the problem. Everyone is seeing it in the state."
Many states, including New Hampshire, are reporting a rise in heroin use as addicts migrate away from more costly and harder-to-get prescription opiates to much-cheaper heroin.
"When I first started doing this job, everything was pills," New Hampshire State Police Troop B Detective Sgt. Marc Beaudoin said. "It slowly started to switch over, and now in the few months I've been at Troop B, I have seen more heroin come into our evidence lockers than marijuana and pills."
"We've had several heroin-related deaths," said Hooksett Police Chief Peter Bartlett. "Given our proximity to the city, there's a lot of spillover from the Manchester side into Hooksett. The residual crime that is associated with addicts, and how they are operating in my community is a concern, given the limited staff and resources we have in Hooksett."
Sgt. Chris Scott and the New Hampshire Information and Analysis Center have been crunching the numbers for months regarding heroin overdoses and deaths in the state over the last five years, preparing a report expected to be released to police departments in the next few weeks. Sgt. Scott gave a preliminary look at the data during Wednesday's talk.
Males aged 20-29 were the demographic group with the highest number of heroin-related deaths — 59 — from 2008 to 2013, including 15 in 2013 alone, according to data supplied by the state medical examiner's office. Men aged 50-59 saw the largest increase in heroin-related deaths between 2012 and 2013, rising from zero to 11 deaths in 2013. There was only one death in that age group from 2008 to 2011.
Focusing on gender-only comparisons, males saw a 65 percent increase in heroin-related deaths from 2012 to 2013, jumping from 26 to 43 deaths.
On a county level, Hillsborough County saw the highest number of heroin-related deaths in the state, 86, from 2008 to 2013. Grafton County saw a 300 percent change from 2012 to 2013, increasing from one to four deaths. Merrimack County experienced a 250 percent change over the same time frame, from two deaths in 2012 to seven in 2013.
In Cheshire and Strafford counties, comparisons of heroin-related deaths in 2013 to prior years show the problem worsening. Cheshire County reported seven deaths in 2013, while Strafford reported six. There were three or less deaths in the counties each year from 2008 to 2012.
"In 2013 we had 33 drug overdoses," said Hudson Police Chief Jason Lavoie. "Nine of those resulted in deaths. Three deaths were due to heroin, the rest were brought back by using Narcan. In the last week and half, we've had three overdoses, two brought back by Narcan."
"The supply has moved next door, instead of a couple of hours away," Claremont police chief Alex Scott. "It becomes the primary driver of our property crimes. The gangs out of New Jersey are coming north and setting up permanent shop in Vermont."
One common concern the police chiefs and law enforcement personnel expressed to Shaheen is the dwindling amount of funds available to fight drug abuse.
"There are more overdose deaths now than fatal motor vehicle accidents," said Lt. John Encarnacao, commander of the New Hampshire State Police Narcotics and Investigations Unit. "We put all kids of money into "Driving Towards Zero," but when it comes to drugs we're cutting, cutting, cutting. We're getting more and more calls from confidential informants, and we have less manpower."
Shaheen said she would work to find more funds for local law enforcement.
"I think there are some grant programs that were cut back dramatically under the budget control act," said Shaheen. "Now those have been rolled back, so hopefully there will be some additional funds available for use. Also, I'm interested to see if those grant programs address the needs we are seeing today. Some of them were developed back in the '90s, and I want to take a look at the wording to see if they need to be updated to reflect what we are seeing here today."