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Towns try to stop wave of heroin overdoses

Stephanie Patton, the prevention coordinator for Organizing Against Substances in Stoughton, introduced herself to new police officers.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Stephanie Patton, the prevention coordinator for Organizing Against Substances in Stoughton, introduced herself to new police officers.

STOUGHTON — Since the start of July, three people in this town south of Boston have died after taking too much heroin or other opiates. Nine more have suffered overdoses but survived. No one can say — so far — why the batch of drugs on the streets here is proving so lethal.

And it is not just Stoughton. In Brockton and Yarmouth, spring and summer have brought a wave of overdoses blamed on heroin, a cheap, powerfully addictive drug that is widely available in the Northeast.

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“We want people to come in from the cold and seek treatment now. We don’t want them being statistics any longer,” said Stoughton Deputy Police Chief Robert Devine. “Their next dose could literally be their last.”

Until laboratory test results come back in a few weeks, the reason that heroin is proving so dangerous right now remains a mystery.

But there are theories: Maybe the heroin in circulation is of such purity that users are not accustomed to it. Or, maybe, another toxic substance is being mixed into the drugs.

Either way, the Police Department and health officials are urging people with drug dependency problems to seek treatment.

Fatal overdoses from heroin and other opiates have increased in Norfolk County in the last few years, said District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey, whose office tracks the deaths. In his county, heroin is responsible for more deaths than homicides, said Morrissey, interviewed on Tuesday shortly before he was involved in an automobile accident.

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There were about 40 fatal overdoses in 2011, he said. Then, in 2012, the number reached into the 50s. This year, fatalities are projected to reach the 60s. Morrissey called it a health epidemic.

“I would be lying to you if I told you it’s not one of my biggest problems,” he said. “It hits everybody’s families, it knows no socioeconomic or racial barrier — it just doesn’t matter.”

Reported overdoses in Brockton doubled in June, said Erik Johnson, general manager for American Medical Response for Eastern Massachusetts, an emergency medical services company. In a typical month, Brockton registers 17 overdoses. The city saw 35 in June. Johnson said his company does not track how many overdoses result in death.

Three people died from overdoses in three weeks in Yarmouth during the spring, said Lieutenant Steven Xiarhos, town deputy police chief. Police held an emergency community meeting and distributed a nasal drug spray called Narcan, which can reverse an overdose, to about 80 people from across Cape Cod, he said.

An intersection in downtown Stoughton, which has seen a rise in heroin overdoses.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

An intersection in downtown Stoughton, which has seen a rise in heroin overdoses.

Xiarhos said he has gotten calls from three people who said they used the spray to save a family member. “It gives them another chance and hopefully this is the chance that saves them,” he said.

Fatal overdoses tend to emerge in pockets as particular batches infiltrate a market, said Hillary Dubois, coordinator of the Brockton mayor’s Opioid Overdose Prevention Coalition.

“Fatal overdoses never happen in a vacuum,” she said. “If you see one, you will see a lot.”

She said that it will take weeks, if not months, to determine what is behind the recent spike of overdoses.

Though police and fire departments have records of their responses to overdoses, that may not provide a complete picture, Dubois said. Many overdoses, both those that cause death and those that do not, go unreported because drug users do not call 911 or because it is not immediately clear the cause of death is a drug overdose.

Dr. Joseph Shrand, the medical director of an intervention unit for at-risk teens at High Point Treatment Center in Brockton, said fatal drug overdoses have been increasing up and down the East Coast in recent months.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory June 20 warning public health departments to be alert for acetyl fentanyl, an injected synthetic opioid that is up to five times more potent than heroin. The advisory said 14 people in Rhode Island have died from overdoses of the drug since March 6.

“It’s really scary stuff,” he said. “We know something is going on in the East Coast.”

Stoughton is a mostly quiet town, Devine said, noting the city has had only three homicides in the last 11 years. Still, most crime, including robberies and car thefts, stems from substance abuse, he said.

Most years, Stoughton records two or three deaths linked to heroin or other opiates. That is what makes the three overdose deaths so far this month so striking.

An aggressive education and prevention campaign in Stoughton endeavors to prevent teens from getting hooked, said Stephanie Patton, the prevention coordinator for Organizing Against Substances in Stoughton, a group supported by federal antidrug grants.

In the last two years, the number of high school students who say they have used prescription drugs to get high has fallen from 8 percent to 3 percent, according to a survey conducted by Patton’s group.

Teenagers can become addicted to prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Patton said, thinking they are not dangerous and then move on to much cheaper heroin.

The epidemic of heroin use has spread across the region with tremendous speed, said Joanne Peterson, founder and executive director of Learn to Cope, a statewide nonprofit that organizes support groups for families who have relatives coping with heroin and other addictions.

The 48-year-old from Raynham started the group nine years ago as her son was fighting his heroin addiction.

When her support groups hear about a rash of overdoses, they tell families to warn their relatives of the risks and keep their Narcan nasal spray handy.

But they face a dilemma when handing out warnings.

Addicts will flock to areas experiencing overdose outbreaks, thinking that signals the arrival of especially potent heroin, she said.

“When you are an addict, your sole purpose in life is seeking your next high and when you find out there is a very potent high, you go looking for it,” she said. “That is the sad fact about it.”

It took Peterson’s son four years before he became clean — but it happened. He has remained sober and is now married, she said.

“It is all about education. People can be very harsh toward addiction, but what they don’t realize is, that is somebody’s son or daughter who tried something without knowing what it was,” she said. “It can happen to anybody’s child today. It’s not because they were a terrible parents.”

Javier Panzar can be reached at javier.panzar@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @jpanzar.

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