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    Monday, March 20, 2023

    Region still in the grip of deadly heroin addiction

    The heroin flowing into southeastern Connecticut usually originates in Mexico, is high in purity and is readily available from dealers who run their businesses with little regard for the well-being of the user or the community at large, according to law enforcement sources.

    Addicts are robbing convenience stores, breaking into homes and stealing from their families to pay for their next bag, police and court officials said in phone interviews Friday. 

    They are using the drug in increasing numbers in cars, according to the AAA.

    And the urge for a better high is so strong that addicts who hear of a particularly potent or even tainted batch of heroin — one that is causing other users to overdose and even die — will look to score some of that batch, according to those who work in the treatment community.

    "There's an interesting phenomenon in the drug world," said Jack Malone, executive director of the Southeastern Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (SCADD). "The addict says, 'I want that kind. I won't take as much as the guy who died, but I want some.' But there's no chipping it, or using just a little amount, because that's not what addicts do."

    Many continue to chase their first high until they get arrested, overdose or die.

    Officials from Lawrence + Memorial Hospital said 15 people were treated for apparent overdoses between Wednesday and Friday, nine of them victims of a suspected bad batch of heroin.

    Another person died of an apparent overdose, possibly from the same bad batch, in New London.

    SCADD, which has a 20-bed detox center in New London for heroin and alcohol addicts, is seeing a steady flow of clients — usually those who hit rock bottom — coming to the center for help, according to Malone.

    He said as of Friday, 16 of the 20 beds were occupied, but the number changes daily.

    Some of the overdose patients told medical providers the heroin they used was brown in color and sold in tied-off plastic bags with no label.

    State police Lt. Mark Sticca, area commander of the Statewide Narcotics Task Force, said most of the heroin flowing into Connecticut comes from Mexican cartels through New York City, transported via Interstate 95, through U.S. Mail, commercial carriers and even on airplanes.

    Asian heroin generally is white in color, he said. Mexican heroin tends to be brown, he said, and the product that is hitting the streets is 60 to 70 percent pure.

    "For the untrained user, that can be a shock to the system, sometimes a fatal shock," Sticca said.

    The overdose patients in New London were regular users who either snorted or injected their regular amount of the drug, according to Dr. Deirdre Cronin, an emergency department physician at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.  

    Dealers use various adulterants to cut heroin or stretch it, Sticca said.

     "We've seen heroin cut with cocaine, baking soda, quinine, sheep dewormer, laxative," he said.

    Sometimes dealers use products like Fentanyl, an opiate that is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin, in an effort to make their heroin more attractive to users.

    But if the product is not mixed evenly, some users could get a lethal dose.

    "If I mix it in a very rudimentary fashion, in theory, I've got a boosted product," Sticca said. "The question is, how and where and when is the Fentanyl added. Is it in the middle of the kilo of heroin? Is it on the outer side? You might get one pocket where it's not mixed that well."

    Deputy Police Chief Peter Reichard of the New London Police Department said Friday afternoon that an investigation of the overdoses is continuing.

    "Upon learning that was going on, our detectives conducted interviews at the hospital to find out if it's an issue with the heroin or with the person," Reichard said. "We don't know if it's bad heroin or if it's very potent."

    "The department is trying to get the word out to social service agencies and to users on the street: 'Know what you're doing and who you're buying from,'" Reichard said.

    Officers also are reaching out to loved ones of users to urge them to divulge the source of the drugs and are asking the public for tips. Text the word NLPDTip and the message to 847411 (tip411).

    Meanwhile, Reichard said ongoing enforcement activities are continuing.

    City police, working with state police and federal officials, are targeting known sellers, many of whom have prior federal and state convictions, and are preparing arrests warrants stemming from a raid conducted earlier in the week that yielded heroin, crack cocaine and firearms, he said.

    Police, social services providers and frustrated parents, interviewed for The Day's ongoing Deadly Addiction series, said the problem is widespread and the fix must include education, treatment and prevention efforts along with law enforcement action.

    "We know we're not going to arrest our way out of this problem," said Sticca from the narcotics task force. "It really has to be a multidisciplinary approach to the problem."

    Meanwhile, he said, the task force is targeting "the poisoners" — the dealers who are taking advantage of and profiting from the addicted.

    Groton City and Groton Town police, after visiting the city of Gloucester, Mass., which created an "Angel" program to help fast-track addicts into treatment, is working with a group of volunteers — including parents of addicts — called Community Speaks Out Inc., to help get addicts into treatment.

    "It's a family tragedy, is what it is," said Groton City Police Chief Thomas Davoren. "If the family wants help, at least now we have someplace to refer them. Of course the person has to want help. It's a battle."

    Davoren and other police administrators said that in Groton City, Waterford and every other community in southeastern Connecticut, addicts are committing crimes to support their drug habits.

    "We have a large retail area," said Waterford Chief Brett Mahoney. "People steal every day in order to support their heroin habit or drug habit in general. We work with other agencies that have exactly the same thing going on with them. In addition, the majority of the burglaries or any type of theft from cars is normally tied to the heroin use. It's not just the drug use. They victimize people."

    Since many heroin addicts started with opiate pain killers taken from a family member's medicine cabinet, police also are reminding the public to safeguard their medication and, if desired, to dispose of it anonymously in bins located in police department lobbies.

    Waterford has a "Challenge" program in its schools to educate students about the dangers of drugs and has officers assigned to the middle and high schools.

    Another group, Shine a Light on Heroin, formed in the Stonington and Westerly area and offers educational and preventive programs in local schools throughout the region.

    "This is not a city problem," Mahoney said. "This is an everywhere problem."

    Senior State's Attorney Paul J. Narducci, who prosecutes serious felonies in New London Superior Court, said a substantial portion of the cases directly or indirectly are related to drug use. Narducci said he takes issue with those who think that drug crimes are nonviolent.

    "There's direct violence to the user's body, and indirect violence to how the users are getting the money, through robberies, larcenies and burglaries," he said.

    Douglas Lavine, therapist and owner of Life Happens addiction treatment clinic in Groton, said Friday that much of the treatment being offered to addicts is ineffective.

    Addicts are only being given about five days to detoxify their systems, he said, which is not enough time to get the effects of heroin addiction out of their systems.

    "We need to keep them in treatment and monitor them for at least 30 days," he said. "We have to stabilize them first."

    After a 30-day detoxification, he typically prescribes patients with Vivitrol to counteract the effects of addiction.

    Too many other treatment providers, he believes, are prescribing Suboxone to addicts, but the patients are not being closely monitored.

    "They're using it to buy more heroin, or using Suboxone just until they can acquire heroin again," he said.

    Day Staff Writer Judy Benson contributed to this story.

    Editor's note: this version clarifies the total overall number of drug overdose victims treated by L+M, as well as the specific number treated for heroin overdoses by the hospital.


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