Antonio Gutierrez makes it his daily mission to keep the troubled adolescents and young adults of Lynn out of harm’s way. Until recently, his biggest worry was how to steer youth toward school and jobs in the community.
But now Gutierrez, a former gang member and program director of a youth outreach organization in Lynn, faces a far more daunting task: How to keep young people alive and sober at a time when tens of thousands of deadly pills are inundating his community.
“Every day it’s a battle, and every day it gets more terrifying,” said Gutierrez, who cofounded Lynn Youth Street Outreach Advocacy. “One minute, they think they’re swallowing candy. The next minute, it’s a fatal overdose.”
Last Monday, residents of this North Shore city were shaken by revelations that authorities had seized more than 10 million doses of illegal drugs — many of them laced with lethal amounts of fentanyl — from the basement of a home in Lynn. The seized pills were molded to resemble the pink, heart-shaped candies that children give each other on Valentine’s Day.
While the drugs are now off the streets, outreach workers worry that many of the candy-shaped pills may have already made their way into the community and possibly into schools.
The massive bust occurred in an ordinary multifamily home — just blocks away from a middle school and a park where children play. From the outside, the beige house looks like any other in the neighborhood — a nicely cut lawn, patio furniture, and holiday lights hanging from a balcony. But inside, down a dark stairwell, a staggering supply of drugs, including more than 20 pounds of pills shaped like candy, were discovered, investigators said. All told, there were more doses seized in a single basement in Lynn than there are people in Massachusetts, authorities noted.
“It can be a gut punch to see those [Lynn] addresses show up in a [Department of Justice] press release, and to think of the concern and fear that residents have,” Lynn Mayor Jared Nicholson said. “Those numbers represent doses that could kill our friends and neighbors.”
Known for its tangled street grid and old factory buildings, Lynn has seen a significant increase in illicit drug activity in recent years. Opioid-related overdoses citywide decreased by 15 percent last year, but they have more than doubled since 2013. During a single week this summer, Lynn police and emergency medical personnel responded to five separate overdose incidents involving four youths aged 14 to 20.
Within hours of Monday’s bust, local agencies in Lynn and other communities on the North Shore began to intensify their street outreach efforts to youth and others at risk of using the dangerous drugs. There is fear that such a large seizure could destabilize the ecosystem of illegal drug activity on the North Shore, and could paradoxically trigger a spike in local overdoses as people who are addicted wind up buying more dangerous drugs from strangers, outreach workers warned.
A study published early this year analyzed two years of drug seizure and overdose data in Indianapolis, and found that, in a week, fatal overdoses doubled within about 500 meters of where an opioid seizure occurred. Researchers have theorized that drug users who are suddenly cut off from their normal supply will go into withdrawal and their tolerance level will decrease — putting them at higher risk of overdose when they find a new supplier, often a stranger selling drugs with an unknown potency.
Brandon Del Pozo, a professor at Brown University and one of the study’s authors, said large-scale drug seizures serve a public purpose, by sending a message that there is a “moral consequence” to people suffering from addiction. Yet he and other researchers stress that seizures should be accompanied with harm-reduction strategies such as connecting people to treatment and increased distribution of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioids.
“The reality is, you are increasing exposure to death in the aftermath of a drug seizure,” said Del Pozo, a former chief of police in Burlington, Vt. “You are throwing people who use drugs out of a very fragile equilibrium … and now they may be getting a more potent opioid and they don’t know what the concentration is. And the margin of error for fentanyl is nonexistent.”
In a written statement, the Lynn Police Department said the large seizure will have an immediate, positive impact on the dangerous pattern of drug abuse in the community and coincides with a broader effort to educate the public about the perils of opioids. Detectives with the agency’s Drug Task Force follow up with every surviving overdose victim to connect them and their families with services.
Yet the discovery of a vast cache of heart-shaped pills has put many here on edge — and fearful that some young people might mistake them for candies.
“How much of that poison physically hit these streets?” Gutierrez asked as he strode toward a popular park in Lynn on Friday. “The scary part is, nobody knows.”
Five days after the bust, outreach workers and volunteers at a substance use recovery center in downtown Lynn were busy filling more than a dozen “hope bags” destined for homeless adolescents and young adults in the area. The paper bags were packed with basic hygiene supplies, the overdose-reversal drug Narcan, and special strips of paper for detecting whether street drugs contain fentanyl, the highly potent synthetic opioid that is deadly even in small quantities. Public health officials estimate that even 2 milligrams of fentanyl, equal to 10 to 15 grains of table salt, is enough to kill a person, though many illicit pills contain many times that amount.
Staffers at the center, operated by the Worcester-based nonprofit Spectrum Health Systems Inc., said the bags are a way to engage young people in a conversation about the deadly pills circulating in the community.
“The fact that so many of those pills were candy-shaped is extremely troubling,” said Kim Patterson, program director at The Recovery Exchange in Lynn. “A pill that small could be dropped and no one would hear it fall. Any child could pick it up and not know it’s deadly.”
Residents in Lynn are not the only ones concerned. In communities up and down the North Shore, including Everett, Revere, and Saugus, outreach workers said they are alerting people of the candy-shaped pills and bracing for a possible spike in overdoses as users seek out new suppliers.
Carrie-Ann Salemme has been coordinating the city of Revere’s substance use disorder outreach efforts since 2017. She was alarmed that many of the seized pills contained a mix of fentanyl and methamphetamine, an opioid and a stimulant. Normally, illicit pills contain one or the other, she said. The hybrid pills could be designed to appeal to young clubgoers, she said, who want the euphoria associated with fentanyl but also a stimulant that will keep them up late.
“These pills appear specially designed to target young people, so they can stay up and party,” Salemme said. “We need to blast it out there to kids and their parents that these pills will kill you.”
Starting last week, Gutierrez altered his daily routine as he makes the rounds through city parks, schools, and street corners in Lynn where young people hang out. He already knows many of the adolescents on a first-name basis, and he has been gently broaching the topic of the drug bust and the dangerous pills with nearly every young person he greets. That includes flashing photos from his smartphone of the candy-shaped pills that have circulated widely on social media since authorities announced the bust.
“I keep having the same conversation, over and over,” Gutierriez said. “I say, `Yo, did you hear about that bust that went down? Have you seen those candy-shaped pills? Because if you do, then don’t touch them. The stuff kills. It’s like Russian roulette.’”