SEVEN YEARS AGO, on Sept. 14, 2014, the phrase “opioid epidemic” first appeared in the pages of the New Hampshire Union Leader.
The state’s drug problem had been growing in little ways for years before it earned the label of epidemic.
For example, in February 2013, Derry police arrested Derek Leavitt, then 25, for stealing a couple of bags of groceries and a 30-pack of Budweiser from a Shaw’s supermarket.
At the time, Leavitt was addicted to drugs. He lived in a Derry apartment with fellow addicts. He spent most of his days popping Percocet and snorting Oxycontin. He experimented with heroin, but never crossed the line into shooting up.
Versions of Leavitt’s story abound in jails and courthouses around New Hampshire: repeat arrests, loss of work, homelessness, alienation from family, life on the run.
Less frequent are the success stories. Leavitt eventually cleaned up. He went through detox, sober homes, 12-step programs.
He now earns $31 an hour as a welder. He supervises a crew and rents his own apartment in Hooksett, he said.
“No roommate, no drugs. I’m starting to live a good life,” Leavitt said last week.
In April, Rockingham County dropped felony theft charges from 2015 after Leavitt successfully completed a court-ordered diversion program.
Some of us hear a story like Leavitt’s and feel inspired. Others sneer and wag our fingers over unpunished crimes and demand a final drip of justice.
So when Leavitt appeared in Derry District Court last month to clear up an outstanding warrant and suspended sentence from two 2013 supermarket thefts and marijuana possession, a judge sent him to jail for 30 days.
No accommodation such as a weekend sentence, house arrest or community service. No fine instead of jail time. In fact, Judge Kerry Steckowych added fines of $1,720 on top of the 30 days.
The message is clear — in New Hampshire, sobriety and success are not enough. Leavitt still had to suffer for petty crimes committed years ago in the throes of addiction.
Leavitt and his sister spoke to me outside Derry District Court.
“If I was any less strong-minded right now, I could have turned around and relapsed (in jail). I’m just fortunate it didn’t break me,” he said.
His sister, a lawyer who practices in Massachusetts, said the federal government sends millions of dollars to New Hampshire to address opioids, then judges make decisions that can set people back.
“It’s not going to change if you have judges on the bench like that,” Ashley Allen said.
I went through the normal channels to ask Steckowych, the judge, to talk about the case. The court system said he can’t discuss the case or his philosophy when it comes to sentencing. A spokesman suggested I reach out to police and prosecutors.
The police prosecutor in the case, Charlene Dulac of Derry police, did not return two telephone messages I left on her voicemail. Nor did Derry Police Chief Edward Garone.
Leavitt said he doesn’t think he should get off without consequences. He would have been happy to pay the fine and do community service, especially any service aimed at helping users.
He said jail doesn’t help anyone trying to steer clear of drugs.
For example, his cellmate bragged about his drug deals, and Leavitt admitted that it crossed his mind to ask him about how to score.
“Going to jail, even for 20 days, is no joke,” Leavitt said. (He was released after 20 days for good time.)
Leavitt doesn’t think society should ease up on drug users. He oversees a crew of three to four people on job sites. He can spot drug use, given his personal experience, and he’s fired a handful of workers who abused on the job.
“I just don’t put up with it anymore,” he said. “If they don’t stop, they have got to go.”
He and his sister grew up in Londonderry, and have lost several friends to opioids. One would shoot up in front of Leavitt but refused to let him do so, Leavitt said. The friend who saved his life is now dead, Leavitt said.
I started this piece calling opioid use an epidemic. But in Leavitt’s case, it was a war. A war where the enemy is demonized. Where no quarter is given. Where leaders plow forward and give no thought to consequences.
Allen thinks district court judges and prosecutors don’t get the training to know about addiction. Ironically, drug court and diversion programs are available for felons, but not for misdemeanor defendants, when problems stemming from drugs could get caught early and be easier to solve, she said.
“In Massachusetts,” she said, “a judge would say ‘why are you wasting my time with a case like this?’”