New Hampshire has been at the forefront of US headlines illustrating the efforts to fight America’s heroin epidemic. It’s not because they have the most overdose deaths amongst the other US states. It’s because their legislation is doing an incredible job, arguably better than any other state’s, at exploiting the issue and proposing and appointing measures to help combat the struggle with the growing epidemic that’s affecting residents from every demographic, regardless of race, ethnicity or financial means.
The latest data from the State’s medical examiner shows that 414 people suffered fatal overdoses in New Hampshire during 2015, up from 326 in 2014 and 192 the year before. The New York Times reported in October that opioid deaths were up 76 percent in New Hampshire in 2014, and emergency room visits from heroin have more than tripled since 2013 in the State as well. As in most other regions, drug deaths have now surpassed the number of traffic deaths in the Granite State. The epidemic has also brought burdensome medical costs, incarceration and lost work for many families.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, the State’s largest “city” of just over 110,000 people, the overdose death toll is staggering. The LA Times reported that last year, 85 overdose deaths occurred in Manchester, in addition to the nearly 700 overdose calls paramedics responded to. Since January of this year, it is reported that 50 have died from heroin overdoses already; setting this year up to be the most deadly in history for the City. Manchester is unquestionably at the epicenter of the State’s crisis, with more reports of abuse and trafficking currently in the municipality than any other in the State. But Manchester police have recently been confronted with a new problem associated with the epidemic: guns.
A horrific level of desperation and limited resources has led traffickers to accept guns as a form of currency, not just to protect themselves and their supplies, but to parlay the goods and re-sell them on the black market. Dealers are selling the firearms in neighboring states like New York, where gun laws are more strict, compounding the war on drugs even further.
According to an October survey from the University of New Hampshire and WMUR, a quarter of New Hampshire’s residents think drug abuse is the most important problem facing the State. As we embark on a presidential election year, every viable candidate has added the conversation of heroin to their platform. As New Hampshire was one of the first states to hold their primary election, it was the hot topic of conversation for all of the candidates.
In Donald Trump’s victory speech following his resounding primary win in New Hampshire this February, he spent a significant amount of time focusing specifically on the battle against heroin and how he plans to stifle the epidemic there, if he wins the spot as Commander in Chief. “For the people of New Hampshire, where you have a tremendous problem with heroin and drugs—you wouldn’t even believe it,” Trump began, before explaining that his plan is to build a great wall cutting off Mexico from the United States.
While that may sound like a formidable idea, since a substantial amount of the nation’s heroin is trafficked from south of the boarder, medical experts firmly maintain that New Hampshire’s surge in heroin use is a direct result of over-prescribing legal pain medication. The New York Times recently reported that three out of four heroin addicts start out by using prescription drugs.
According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control, what gets people addicted to heroin in places like New Hampshire are painkillers like Percocet, OxyContin and Vicodin. When users can’t wean off the drug effectively, they turn to cheaper alternatives, like heroin. The CDC also reports that there are as many prescriptions for painkillers in America as there are adults living in it, and notes that people who are addicted to prescription opioid painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin. One recovering resident shared, “Heroin is cheap now. It’s cheaper than a pack of cigarettes, easier to find than weed, and has been a lot more potent over the last five years.”
Originally reported by the New Hampshire Public Radio, a story of a local resident paints a tragic, but common tale of a suffering opiate addict. After an injury on the slopes, Jack O’Connor was given a prescription for the painkiller Percocet. After a few years, O’Connor switched from Percocet to Oxycodone, then to heroin to get higher, cheaper – a common path.
O’Connor put himself through detox 20 times, but it didn’t stop his addiction. His limbic reward system had hijacked other systems in his brain – systems that drive judgment, planning and organization – driving Him to seek that pleasure of getting high. Belanger died of an overdose at his home from a batch of heroin laced almost entirely with fentanyl.
In the last decade, the State government reports that the number of people admitted to state-funded treatment facilities has risen by 90 percent for heroin addiction, and 500 percent for prescription opiate abuse. While this statistic may at first shed a positive light on the movement toward helping residents get treatment, it pales in comparison to the actual need. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that New Hampshire ranks second to last among states when it comes to access to substance abuse treatment for those who need it.
The LA Times reported in December that “There is a bed shortage in residential programs, resulting in waiting lists that are weeks long. An effort to create a drug court in Manchester failed because of a lack of funding, and drug dealers are increasingly cutting heroin with a synthetic version of the analgesic fentanyl, which is much more powerful and is leading to more overdoses.”
New Hampshire has notoriously been linked to limited resources to drug treatment, and the state’s legislature is vehemently trying to change that. A new state bill calls for additional dollars for a number of areas including treatment for people battling addiction while in prison, drug prevention efforts in schools, and expanding access to the overdose reversal drug, Narcan. According to the state’s bureau of Emergency Medical Services, the life-saving anti-overdose drug Naloxone, more commonly known as Narcan, has been administered in Hillsborough County (where Manchester is located) in more than 2,000 incidents in 2015, CNN reports.
Currently, schools are required to teach students prevention, but not annually. More schools are implementing anti-drug messaging into programming. If passed, a new measure would require that all public schools delegate time each year to teaching drug prevention from Kindergarten up to 12th grade in New Hampshire.
In Coos County, Berlin High School is an archetypal example of how the epidemic is trickling down to the elemental level. Almost six percent of Berlin High School students admitted trying heroin at least once, according to a 2013 student survey prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Berlin school board has already taken radical strides, making the anti-overdose drug Narcan available in its schools.
In the wake of the massively inflated statistics of opioid abuse and deaths in our country, people have started openly talking about it-and this is truly where New Hampshire shines in lieu of the dark cloud of the heroin epidemic. Both Parents and politicians are breaking their silence about today’s heroin. Obituaries which used to glaze over the death details now candidly share the truth, of those fallen by their addiction, which replaced the common phrase: “passing suddenly”. Politicians are sharing their stories of struggle; of family members with the disease of addiction and the need to provide more services to those in need rather incarcerating them. Chris Christie has shared, “We need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them.”
In early February, the Obama administration announced a plan to seek $1.1 billion to pay for drug treatment, invoking a now-common refrain that heroin and other opioid abuse is responsible for more deaths than everyday car crashes. It is thanks to vociferous states like New Hampshire that are helping put the conversation of addiction front and center in order to help those in need get the help they deserve.