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Officials: $3m worth of fentanyl seized in New Hampshire last year

Union Leader Correspondent

January 29. 2018 8:10PM
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, right, listens to Jay Fallon, executive director of the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, a multi-agency briefing about the status of the regional fight against opioids. The hourlong briefing was held at the program's Methuen, Mass., headquarters. (CHRIS GAROFOLO/UNION LEADER CORRESPONDENT)

METHUEN, Mass. — The New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program reported Monday more than $5 million worth of illicit drugs was seized in New Hampshire last year, including $3 million of fentanyl alone, but are not yet declaring victory.

Law enforcement officials credit the increased partnerships between federal, state and local agencies and new awareness programs, highlighting an education initiative with Boston University, for the reduction of the trafficking of illicit drugs in the region. But police say they cannot let up despite the dip in overdose deaths in 2017.

“If we are looking at a leveling off, it is because of the resources that are applied on the ground, it is because the coordination and the efforts that are ongoing, and we have now just reached the point where it’s in view,” said Col. Christopher Wagner, head of the New Hampshire State Police and executive board member of New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA).

The overdose-related deaths seem to have stabilized over the past 12 months, according to New Hampshire State Police, yet the large numbers from 2015 and 2016 remain a concern.

“We’re talking just under 500 deaths, so it’s not a victory by any stretch of the imagination,” Wagner said.

The skyrocketing fentanyl seizures in 2017 prove the opioid is making drug traffickers money in the state, and police say the criminals here and coming to New Hampshire are evolving as quickly as officers can act.

“We have to keep our eye on the ball because the other side, the bad guys, continue to work just as hard, if not harder, because that’s all they do,” said Jay Fallon, executive director of the HIDTA program. “We can’t consider it a victory at all insofar as the fact that the number of overdose deaths are down.”

Fallon and Wagner were two of a dozen voices in a New Hampshire-heavy briefing Monday morning from the HIDTA headquarters in Methuen, Mass. The federally-operated program, overseen by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, aids local, state and other agencies in confronting drug trafficking through its interstate highway patrols and other crime-stopping efforts.

In the Granite State, the HIDTA task force is comprised of 60 members, 48 based within New Hampshire.

Fifty-two drug trafficking organizations were investigated in 2017, with agents disrupting or dismantling 31 of them. They were able to seize $5.1 million in wholesale value of drugs, including 38.07 kilograms of fentanyl valued at more than $3 million, and an additional $2.9 million in cash and other drug-related assets.

“Two to three milligrams of fentanyl could be fatal,” Fallon said. “It’s certainly conceivable that 38 kilograms could wipe out the entire population of New England.”

The growing threat from fentanyl has led to the heroin response strategy implemented by HIDTA to refocus some of its efforts.

HIDTA Deputy Director Dave Kelley said since fentanyl, a fast-acting but deadly opioid used as a pain medication, has a greater impact than heroin, officials are now looking at it as a fentanyl response strategy. This led to a comprehensive policy with public health departments.

“It’s a public safety/public health information sharing platform, and it’s really given the ability of each state now to get a better handle on the impact of the opioid crisis in their state, which was vastly unreported prior to this,” Kelley said. “And now, because of that and our partnership with the Centers for Disease Control, we have established that unique partnership where we can really start to target and identify the root causes of (the crisis).”

One of the newest, and more efficient, drug monitoring partnerships is with Boston University SCOPE (Safe and Competent Opioid Prescribing Education) of Pain.

The overprescription of opioids has led to BU experts in addiction medicine to oversee forums about the dangers of too many over-the-counter drugs.

“We invested in this program, it became an award-winner,” Kelley said, saying communities from Hanover to Portsmouth have taken advantage of the SCOPE of Pain programming.

Furthermore, domestic highway enforcement has stepped up. The open interstate travel of drug traffickers has led to more in-depth mapping, monitoring their tendencies and pinpointing related arrests to share with departments in the six-state region.

“If it’s not for us collecting that information and passing it out, nobody else is going to,” said Ken Bradley, a drug intelligence officer with HIDTA based in Concord, where he was with the city’s police department for a decade.

“It helps law enforcement in looking at trends, it’s looking at the trafficking routes and it’s looking at the local people in their community that are driving these drugs to people in these areas,” he said. “They’re going down to Massachusetts, they’re picking up large quantities, they’re going back and they have their own distribution networks; and if we’re not providing that information to local law enforcement, they might not be aware.”

Wagner praised the HIDTA partnerships and says he “sees firsthand the benefit of such an organization,” noting state police would not be able to address the threat of opioids without the interagency connections, especially on the highways.

“Maybe I’m partial to New England and New Hampshire State Police, but I don’t in my travels across the country see the type of coordination between local, state (and) federal law enforcement and all the various entities working to address this problem. It truly is unique, it’s remarkable and it is what drives the success of this program,” he said.

Joining the conversation was U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, who attended the briefing to seek the opinions of those on the frontline of the crisis to learn what is working, in the hopes of bringing that information back to Capitol Hill.

Although the Trump administration declared the opioid crisis a national health crisis, and earlier this month extended that emergency declaration, Shaheen said the White House has cut back funding for effective anti-drug programs like HIDTA.

“What we’re doing now is not doing enough to address the crisis,” Shaheen said. “The idea that we’re beginning to see a leveling-off is positive, but we know we still have a lot more to do.”

The briefing itself was largely nonpartisan and Shaheen spoke of across-the-aisle cooperation on battling the nationwide opioid crisis, but ripped President Donald Trump for failing to live up to his campaign promises when it comes to solving this problem.

“Now it’s time to show us how much you care,” she told reporters after the hour-long discussion with law enforcement. “A great economy is wonderful, but if it doesn’t help people who need help, what good is it?”

The President’s State of the Union address tonight is expected to include talking points on the robust economic growth, record-breaking stock market and several priorities for the administration, including infrastructure improvements and immigration reform.

Shaheen has chosen to bring New Hampshire mother Jeanne Moser, who lost her son to a fentanyl overdose, in an effort to bring further attention to the dire need for more federal aid in the Granite State.

“I’d like to hear the President say that he’s going to commit to supporting more resources to address this epidemic,” she added.

Politics Public Safety Crime Addiction Heroin

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