SPECIAL REPORT — Acton and Boxborough police and firefighters tackle opiate problem

WickedLocal/Acton

By Molly Loughman
mloughman@wickedlocal.com

March 26. 2015 4:00PM

 

When officers arrive to a medical emergency involving an overdose, it usually means the person is unconscious, according to Acton Police Department Sgt. Edward Lawton, a 22-year veteran of the department and a member of the its drug unit, formed in October 2012.

 

Lawton said the unconscious person’s history as a drug user is usually revealed by friends, family or neighbors on the scene. Traces of drug abuse are also typically visible at the scene around the unconscious individual, including drugs, syringes or spoons.

 

“They don’t have time to put it away. They’re usually right in the middle of an injection or whatever, they go,” said Lawton.

 

Before the EMS service arrives to transport the person to the hospital, offices can administer Narcan in an attempt to reverse the effect of the overdose, unless it’s a sudden death, said Lawton.

 

“Sometimes they can be violent — mad because we took them out of their high. It can be tricky situation, but they’re alive,” said Acton Fire Department Lt. Christopher Sammet.

 

After the fire department arrives, police examine potential causes of the overdose by treating the area as a crime scene situation to preserve any evidence. When there is a sudden death, an investigation is ensued to find where the drugs came from, said Lawton.

 

Across Massachusetts, the total number of unintentional opioid overdose deaths increased from 2,759 in 2003 to 2007 to 2,957 from 2008 to 2012. Many smaller communities saw increases between the two time periods, according to an April 2014 report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

 

Out of Acton’s 40 calls for assistance involving reported overdoses from Jan. 1, 2012, through February 2015, in all cases the party was transported to the hospital, except for five who died. Some of the overdoses were intentional, according to data from the Acton Police Department. Last year, APD began monitoring its medical calls that involved overdoses, which involved going through the police logs three years back.

 

Overdose calls in Acton included sleep medication, cough suppressants, Ibuprofen, Ritalin, Adderall, Klonopin, alcohol, Ecstasy, heroin, Clonidine, Xanax, medications and opioids.

 

“Now if I read something about a possible overdose, if the officer hasn’t written a report, I’ll ask him to follow up and write a report on it, so we’re trying to track it better,” said Deputy Police Chief Rich Burrows, adding that there may have been more overdoses in 2012, but because the report comes in as a medical call, it’s not easily identifiable as a typical police report. “Depending on who you talk to sometimes, around the holiday times — Thanksgiving, Christmas — tend to get harder for some people.”

 

There were seven overdoses last November in Acton, according to police. From the last overdose in November 2014 through those in February, there have been four saves from the Acton Fire Department (AFD) using Narcan (naloxone), a medicine that reverses an opioid overdose. Burrows noted that Quincy has seen significant Narcan saves since it was one of the first communities in the state to acquire the device.

 

Due to an increase in overdoses, Acton police acquired Narcan devices last January for its police cruisers. The Acton Fire Department has been using Narcan since September, according to Fire Chief Patrick Futterer.

 

“You can take someone that’s unresponsive, low pulse, barely breathing and turn them around talking within minutes. It’s been amazing. I didn’t think we’d see as many calls as we did,” said fire Lt. Christopher Sammet.

 

Acton is taking over as the emergency medical service (EMS) provider in town for advanced life support, which will involve training all 42 Acton firefighters/EMS personnel, who are currently trained to use Narcan, as paramedics in the next year.

 

In one recent situation in Acton, a man overdosed in his car and one of his co-workers, who had Narcan on hand, administered it. The man came to consciousness and was transported to the hospital. More people, including parents and heroin users, are acquiring Narcan perspirations to save their child or each other from overdosing, said Burrows.

 

“If they’re unconscious, you tend to want to think, especially at such a young age, that they’ve overdosed,” said Lawton, noting that opiates have been the leading cause of overdoses, except for some prescription medicines, which are less frequent.

 

“And in a certain percentage of them, we recognize the person from prior dealings. So we hear a specific name that they’re unconscious, that could be the first thing we think of — that they overdosed,” said Lt. Jim Cogan, with Acton Police Department for 32 years.

 

While some purposefully overdose, others are dealt different or stronger quality heroin than they’re used to. The purity is unknown, said Burrows.

 

“You roll up to what appears to be a healthy 25-year-old, a healthy 30-year-old, they’re not usually just dropping for no reason,” said Burrows, noting some people begin overdosing after receiving pain medication from an injury at work. “They get hooked on the pain medication; they can’t afford the pain medication, and so they move to heroin because it’s cheaper. I’ve had a couple of those in my career.”

 

Since joining the Acton police in the 1990s, Lawton recalls heroin was always present, but cocaine was popular. Now heroin is back and more vibrant than anything, he said, noting it may be the cheapest drug available, along with some pills.

 

To be proactive in preventing drug use, people inform Acton’s drug unit about possible drug distributors. Heroin is becoming increasingly less pure with the use of one common additive, fentanyl, a powerful painkiller that when combined with heroin creates a deadly mixture, said Detective Dean Keeler, a member of the drug unit.

 

“We look into ever tip that comes in,” said Lawton, who along with Keeler investigates drug activity around town in unmarked vehicles. “Nine out of 10 times, usually what you see is usually right on target of what drug activity is. It gets harder and harder because as the word gets out and an investigation is successful, nobody wants to put themselves in a situation, so they go more covert. It’s everywhere, it really is.”

 

Individuals with drugs often use town borders to elude investigators, said Burrows, explaining as a result, the police department collaborates with surrounding police departments to address the opiate epidemic.

 

“Opiate use seems a lot more active now than it was three or four years ago. I don’t think there’s any one particular description of an opiate user. They don’t have a certain profile,” said Lawton. “(Heroin) is a tough drug to beat, the addiction’s strong. It’s a highly addictive drug and that’s what’s driving all of it.”

 

Out of the 40 calls for assistance involving reported overdoses from Jan. 1, 2012, to February 2015 in Acton, the ages of those who overdosed ranged from ages 15 to 70 and included both males and females.

 

“It’s all levels of socioeconomics; it has no boundaries,” said Keeler, who added that a legitimate prescription for an opiate is often what starts opiate addiction. “Once the prescription is over, the addiction isn’t. They might start by buying pills on streets, but those are expensive. If they can’t stop, it’s only a matter of time.”

 

According to Boxborough Police Chief Warren Ryder, in the last year, Boxborough police have responded to six overdoses, with no deaths. Overdose victims have been white males between the ages of 17 and 32, and in one case was a 19-year-old female. However, Ryder said opiate addiction and abuse has no boundaries when it comes to demographics and backgrounds.

 

“We did notice an increase in the younger side of the spectrum when prescription pills were more available. Now that pills are harder to get and more expensive, we are seeing more heroin on the streets,” said Ryder, noting the Boxborough Police Department has detectives assigned to regional task forces that work in teams to investigate narcotic distribution. “We aggressively pursue the source and provide help to those who have fallen into addictive patterns. We work with the Ayer District Court and strongly support treatment in lieu of punishment.”

 

Boxborough police are usually the first responder to a medical call, along with the Boxborough Fire Department and Pro EMS paramedics, who are prepared to respond with Narcan. Boxborough police and fire departments have carried Narcan for a year, according to Ryder, who believes in the vigorous enforcement of the drug laws and public education on heroin use and opioid abuse.

 

Police officers are trained to recognize the signs of opiate abuse and overdose, as well as how to provide emergency care to those experiencing an overdose. They also provide advice and resources to anyone suspected of abusing drugs. Those in Boxborough who suspect drug activity can call the police or send email to tips@boxborough-ma.gov to report any suspected drug activity.

 

In the last 20 years, more drugs have been made available to area juveniles, who have often used marijuana since its decriminalization, along with synthetic drugs. Heroin users are more common among those 18 or older, said Keeler.

 

Keeler said it takes around a year before the addict moves from buying pills to eventually using heroin. The person tends to be honest with police once they’re drug abuse is revealed, he said, but prior to that, they’re not always open about their addiction with friends and family. If heroin is at the scene of a 911 medical call, state law says no one can be charged with the possession of the heroin if one of the people at the scene was the 911 caller, Keeler said.

 

It could also take a year to rehabilitate an opiate addict, said Keeler, who thinks the state should further its efforts in supplying treatment options for drug addicts to end the epidemic. Concord’s Drug Court addresses the opiate addition issue on a local level.

 

“You always lay out their options for them, try to point them in the right direction and that’s about all I can do,” said Keeler. “It always comes down to what they decide to do if they’re ready to make a change or not.”

 

 

Read online at http://acton.wickedlocal.com/article/20150326/NEWS/150328450