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Spike in heroin overdoses across Mass. stirs fears

A recent motor vehicle stop in Salisbury resulted in the confiscation of marijuana, prescription pills, and 12.4 grams of heroin. Two men were arrested.

SALISBURY POLICE DEPARTMENT

A recent motor vehicle stop in Salisbury resulted in the confiscation of marijuana, prescription pills, and 12.4 grams of heroin. Two men were arrested.

In Taunton three people have died, apparently of heroin overdoses, in less than a month. In Attleboro a 28-year-old woman died, apparently the same way, on Friday. In Salisbury police are warning residents about a possible bad batch of the drug after two people overdosed Wednesday morning.

“In just about every county in the state, we have seen in recent weeks an increase in overdoses,” State Police spokesman David Procopio said.

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Now, State Police are working with local police to investigate the recent spike of fatal and nonfatal heroin overdoses and to determine whether an unusually potent or dangerously cut strain of the opioid is being distributed.

The danger of heroin was thrust into the spotlight this week after Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead with a needle in his arm in his New York City apartment Sunday.

In Massachusetts hard numbers of recent overdoses were not available, officials said, as analysts are still compiling statistics. State Police are coordinating with their drug lab to see whether testing has revealed any pattern of additives or very pure heroin. They will review the findings and ask analysts if they are seeing anything new, Procopio said.

“It’s become a public health epidemic,’’ said Attleboro police Chief Kyle Heagney. “We’re experiencing all these deaths.”

Police used to get one or two overdose calls a month, Heagney said, but for the past two weeks, they have been getting at least one a day. On Monday Attleboro issued an alert, warning residents to be aware of the high number of overdoses and urging users to seek treatment and avoid using heroin.

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“The ultimate goal is to get them help,” Heagney said. “We don’t want to see anybody getting killed. These drug users, they all have mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers.”

Authorities believe there are three possible explanations for the spike in overdoses, Procopio said. One is that a very potent strain of heroin has entered the state. Another is that a cutting agent, such as the synthetic narcotic Fentanyl, is being added, increasing toxicity. And the third is that people are using multiple drugs simultaneously. It could also be a combination of all three, Procopio said.

If the investigation reveals anything conclusive, Procopio said, officials will release that information to the public.

Anne Roach, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health, called heroin overdoses a public health crisis.

Statewide opioid-related deaths, which include overdoses of heroin and prescription drugs, nearly doubled between 2000 and 2011, rising from 363 to 642, according to data provided by Roach. More recent figures were not available.

“It’s safe to say that heroin has never gone away here in New England,” said Anthony Pettigrew, DEA spokesman for the region. “I’m always interested when I hear people say ‘bad batch.’ There’s no such thing as a good batch. There’s no good heroin. You don’t know what’s in it.”

In cities and towns across the state, the spike in overdoses has officials scrambling to alert residents to the danger.

“The past couple months, it’s gotten out of control,” said Detective Sergeant Matthew Skwarto of the Taunton Police Department.

Skwarto said that for much of 2013, police had typically gotten between two and five nonfatal overdose calls a week. Between Jan. 8 and Feb. 4, he said, police have fielded 33 calls, including the three fatals. There was also a fatal overdose on Dec. 15.

Skwarto said he has tested samples from two nonfatal overdoses, and both came back negative for heroin. They appeared instead to be Fentanyl, which he said is anywhere from 10 to 100 times stronger than heroin.

The Salisbury Police Department issued a warning Wednesday about “a possible bad batch of heroin” after two people overdosed that morning, said Chief Thomas Fowler. Both overdose victims lived, he said.

In Lawrence, Police Chief James X. Fitzpatrick said the city has seen about 10 nonfatal overdoses since the beginning of the year. Police do not normally track those numbers, he said, but the statewide spike put the issue on their radar.

Often, officials said, heroin users first become addicted to prescription painkillers. But the habit becomes too expensive, and so they turn to heroin.

“It is cheap, it is pure, and it is easy to get,” said Kevin Norton, chief executive of Lahey Health Behavioral Services, which provides addiction treatment and mental health counseling to Greater Boston, the North Shore, and the Merrimack Valley. “What we’re seeing is a younger population using it every year.”

Lahey is working with the Department of Public Health to try to get a drug called Narcan, which reverses the effects of an overdose, into the hands of families of regular drug users, Norton said.

“Not everyone is ready for treatment,” he said. “The goal here is to keep people alive until they’re ready for treatment.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Lahey Health Behavioral Sciences.

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