TAUNTON — In the last month and a half, 64 people have overdosed in Taunton, five fatally, and at a community meeting Monday night, Police Chief Edward Walsh asked a question that no one can yet answer.
“When will this end?”
On Saturday alone, four people overdosed on heroin, two of them just minutes apart. Two days later, about 60 residents gathered in the theater at the Benjamin A. Friedman Middle School to talk with political leaders and health experts about the scourge that has struck several towns across the Commonwealth. Many came bearing their own tales of struggles with addiction.
Bristol District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter told the crowd that for years, a bag of heroin cost $20 on average. Now, around Taunton, he said, a bag can be found for $7.
Since 2007, Sutter said, overdoses have at least doubled in the county, with admittances to treatment centers rising by nearly 50 percent.
On Saturday, the overdoses happened at three locations, according to Taunton Police Lieutenant Daniel McCarthy. Two occurred within 16 minutes of one another at an address on Tremont Street, he said. The multifamily home has had four overdoses within the month.
Later that day, authorities responded to a call for an overdose in a vehicle parked on Bay Street, said McCarthy. In the evening, police responded to another overdose on Pine Street.
The conversation Monday night was wide ranging, touching on preventative education, reactive treatments, and tougher enforcement.
Susan Cyr’s 32-year-old son, Eric, died of a heroin overdose in January. She said prosecutors and judges must do more to punish drug dealers, by imposing harsher sentences for more serious charges.
Eric, she said, shot up bad heroin laced with fentanyl in his car in a CVS parking lot on Jan. 24. He died alone and sat in his car for a day before he was discovered.
Although police did not immediately confirm Cyr’s account, authorities across New England have warned people that heroin laced with fentanyl, a powerful narcotic, is a particularly dangerous and potentially fatal combination.
Throughout Massachusetts, State Police have been compiling numbers to help quantify the spike in heroin overdoses, said David Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police.
“In just about every county in the state, we’ve seen an increase [in usage],” said Procopio.
Although exact numbers for recent overdoses in Massachusetts were not available, Procopio said there has been a rush to bring any heroin samples recovered to the lab to be analyzed for patterns of additives or pure strains of the drug.
“It’s happening in the city, it’s happening in towns, it’s happening across the socioeconomic spectrum,” he said.
Procopio said police have been cracking down on the street level, working to target dealers. Earlier this month, authorities arrested 25 people in the Merrimack Valley after a coordinated sweep by Lawrence, Methuen, Andover, Haverhill, and Salem, N.H., officials.
In Dorchester, three men and a woman were arrested on Saturday after Boston police searched and recovered 200 grams of heroin and 4,000 Oxycontin pills, along with an illegal firearm.
Taunton police have developed a strategy this month to combat the abuse of heroin and opiates in the city, and have posted it on the department’s website.
“The grade of the heroin on the streets of Taunton is high,” Taunton police stated in their strategy plan. “The price is low. Cheaper than cocaine. Cheaper than painkillers. Because of the low price and purity of the heroin in Taunton, we have become a regional market where individuals as far away as New Hampshire will come to Taunton to purchase it.
“We are currently on track to have more heroin overdoses in the first three months of the year than we had in the entire year of 2013,” the department’s plan said.
Advocates at the community meeting stressed that most users do not start off with heroin, but transition to the drug after first being prescribed opiates to treat pain. “Not everyone began as an addict; sometimes they began as a patient,” said Joanne Peterson, founder of Learn 2 Cope, a support group for relatives of drug users.
Melissa Welch, 22, of Taunton, was present at Monday’s meeting at the Friedman Middle School. She said she is a recovering addict who grew up in a well-off family, going to Christian school and playing sports.
“One day someone offered me a pill and six years later I’m an IV heroin addict,” she said.
Welch asked the health officials on the panel why hospitals cannot hold overdose patients longer after they are admitted.
“An overdose isn’t going to scare a drug addict into not using again,” she said, and many people will just go out and try to restore their high.
Kathryn Weibrecht, a toxicologist at Morton Hospital, said if someone wakes up alert and communicates fully with the doctors, the hospital cannot force them to stay.
Jeffrey Nichols, 45, of Worcester, said he is a former addict who believes that standard methods of treatment are not working. Nichols said funding could be better used in building new custodial medical facilities that housed addicts for about a year.
The facilities would not be jails, Nichols said, but places where professionals say, “We’re going to help you rebuild your life.”
Sutter, the DA, said such a program would first need to be approved by voters and tested in pilot programs. Funding, he said, would be beyond the budget of his office.
“I can’t do something like this just on my own,” Sutter said.
Many attendees offered support for the police, and said they recognize that their job is a difficult one: Drugs are not sold on street corners anymore. They are dealt through mobile phones and quick meet-ups that are hard to identify, the participants said.
Several parents also said they realize much of the burden falls on them and discussing the issue out in the open as they did Monday night is an important step.
Susan Malloch Taylor told the crowd that her daughter has struggled with heroin addiction for years, but has been sober for eight months.
She said she has slept in her clothes, worried about receiving a late-night call telling that her daughter had overdosed. She was afraid to open her daughter’s bedroom door, worried she would find her dead.
“It’s devastating; it’s an epidemic,” Malloch Taylor said. “And I’m just a mom trying to keep my kid alive.”