Drug Overdoses, Deaths Rise Sharply In Tewksbury Despite Increased Enforcement, Education
Aug 19, 2015 10:15AM ● Published by Bill Gilman
According to Chief Timothy Sheehan, police and fire responded to 63 drug overdoses in all of 2014, four of which resulted in deaths. This year, through Aug. 18, there have already been 49 overdoses, with seven cases resulting in death.
"We are very disturbed by this," said Sheehan. "We will be continuing to work within the community and with other law enforcement agencies to find ways to effectively address this problem."
According to Sheehan, the number one drug problem in Tewksbury is the use and abuse of opiates, ranging from prescription drugs such as oxycodone and oxycontin to heroin. But over the past two years, the prescription drug fentanyl has emerged as a new drug of choice on the streets.
Used by doctors to treat severe pain and as part of an anesthetic cocktail, fentanyl can be 80-100 times more potent than morphine and 40-50 times more potent than pure, prescription grade heroin.
"The problem we are finding is that heroin is either being cut with fentanyl or replaced by pure fentanyl," said Sheehan. "So you have people who believe they are (shooting up with) heroin and, in fact, it turns out they are using fentanyl, which is far more powerful."
This can lead to an accidental overdose, said Sheehan.
According to Sheehan, one of the four Tewksbury overdose deaths in 2014 was linked to fentanyl, as well as least two of the overdose deaths in 2015.
Heroin and fentanyl look nearly identical, which has also proven problematic for law enforcement. In 2014, Tewksbury detectives made a major drug bust and the dealers were charged with trafficking heroin. However, the State Police drug lab reported the drugs to be fentanyl.
The charges had to be changed from trafficking a Class A drug, heroin, to possession with intent to distribute a Class B drug, fentanyl..
"There is a loophole in the law right now. Trafficking fentanyl is not a crime," said Sheehan. "So all we can charge them with is possession with intent (to distribute). It carries a much lesser sentence."
Sheehan addresses his concerns about the legal loophole with Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who, along with other Massachusetts DAs, approached Attorney General Maura Healey about closing the loophole.
The result is legislation introduced this week by Healey, the DAs and legislators to make trafficking fentanyl a felony punishable by 20 years in prison.
"We are very supportive of this legislation," said Sheehan. "The loophole needs to be closed."
In the meantime, Tewksbury and several neighboring communities will take a major pro-active step in the war on drug abuse with the launch of the Substance Abuse Prevention Collaborative on Sept. 1. The program will also serve Lowell, Chelmsford and Dracut but the program director will work out of Tewksbury Police Headquarters.
The program, funded by a state grant, will focus on prevention of underage drinking and drug use.
The opiate crisis is not unique to Tewksbury. More than 1,000 opiate-related overdose deaths were reported in Massachusetts in 2014, according to figures provided by the state. In Middlesex County, the number of opiate-related overdose deaths increased from 154 in 2012 to 212 in 2013, a jump of more than 30 percent.