By Sarah L. Hopkinson
Less than two weeks ago, Somerville police arrested a man carrying 114 grams of heroin and 68 grams of cocaine, all trafficked drugs he was believed to be bringing into the city to sell. This arrest is a small step forward in local authorities’ attempts to fight the heroin pandemic troubling the city. Since January 2013, authorities have witnessed a dangerous upward trend in the incidence of heroin overdoses in Somerville. According to Michael Cabral, the deputy chief of the Somerville Police Department, in little over a year, there have been seven fatal heroin overdoses and 21 non-fatal overdoses – this averages out at two per month. This trend is part of a nationwide resurgence that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency is tracking and which includes New York City, Pittsburg, Vermont – and now Somerville.
Although authorities are unable to identify the reason for this recent resurgence in both heroin use and overdose, the potency of certain batches of heroin may be a contributing factor. Police have been finding that a large proportion of heroin being used and dealt in Somerville is cut with fentanyl, an opiate about 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin and therefore more dangerous. At the beginning of the year, there were 22 recorded overdose deaths in Pittsburg from heroin mixed with fentanyl.
The arrest made last Friday by the Somerville police may help to curtail the prevalence of heroin in the city, but, as Cabral says, arrests are never going to cure this problem.
“The police department realizes that you cannot arrest your way out of this problem,” he said. “Therefore, we are making an effort to work in conjunction with other city agencies in a collaborative effort to educate, enforce and assist in any way we can. We realize that this problem affects a lot of families, and we are now training our police officers in Narcan use in the hopes that we may be able to save a life.”
Cabral spoke at an event Tuesday (April 8) in Somerville to warn people about how dangerous heroin mixed with fentanyl is. The event was hosted by the Somerville Department of Health and is part of a citywide program, “How To Save A Life,” to tackle heroin abuse in the area. The informational event also featured Jan Kauffman, vice president of addiction treatment at North Charles Inc., who talked about how to recognize and treat heroin addiction, and the Somerville Fire Department.
“How To Save A Life” is a program funded by a $100,000 grant by the Massachusetts Department of Health and involves a variety of community providers, such as Somerville Department of Health, the Office of Prevention, the Somerville Fire Department, Teen Empowerment and the Somerville Police Department. The program seeks to educate Somerville residents about heroin abuse, how to treat it and how to administer Narcan – the drug to counteract overdose. The Somerville Police Department is training all of its officers in how to administer the drug.
Although education, community outreach and preventative measures will hopefully go a long way in tackling this increasingly widespread problem, there are other, more decisive measures that will play an important role. For instance, the Somerville Police Department is combining the efforts of their narcotics unit, gang unit and detective unit to try and understand the problem and is sending more officers out to investigate heroin-related deaths. Detectives are performing follow-up investigations on both fatal and non-fatal overdoses to find out where users are getting their heroin from and if it is laced with fentanyl.
Because of these increased and coordinated efforts, police were able to arrest a possible drug dealer last Friday and remove a substantial amount of narcotics from the street. According to Cabral, this is one of a number of arrests the narcotics unit has made in the past few months and, although aware this will not solve the problem, indicates that increased efforts are working.
However, the resurgence of a highly addictive drug is deeply worrying for city authorities and residents. Although Somerville has no statistics with which to compare those recorded since January 2013, police have noted increases in the last few months alone. Gov. Deval Patrick declared a statewide public health emergency March 27 due to the growing numbers of opioid overdoses and, thanks to efforts undertaken under the “How To Save A Life” and by public services such as the police department, Somerville is taking steps to tackle it.