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Drug crisis sparks border war of words

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, left,  and Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera.
New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, left, and Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera.AP, John Tlumacki/globe staff/Associated Press

Another New England governor is laying the blame for his state’s drug problem on Lawrence, sparking a border war of words with the city’s mayor.

In a speech in Manchester and in a Boston radio interview on Wednesday, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu said nearly all of the powerful opioid fentanyl that is making its way into the Granite State is coming from the small city just across his state’s southern border.

“Eighty-five percent of the fentanyl in this state is coming straight out of Lawrence, Massachusetts,” Sununu told a gathering of business leaders Wednesday morning, video of the event shows, though he provided no source for the claim.

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Sununu said law enforcement would cross state lines to keep drug dealers — some of whom he said were in the country illegally — out of New Hampshire.

“We’re going across borders,” Sununu said he’d told fellow governors from around New England, including Governor Charlie Baker. “You better get ready.” Sununu said he’d been working with state and federal law enforcement agencies on the issue.

At a news conference in Lawrence on Thursday, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera criticized Sununu for oversimplifying the drug problem that is raging in many areas of the region and across the country.

“The reality is, it’s a really complicated problem. Lawrence isn’t the basis of the problem. The users in Manchester aren’t the basis of the problem,” Rivera said. “I don’t think he understands what he’s talking about.”

In August, Maine Governor Paul LePage made a similar claim, contending that Maine’s drugs were coming to the state via black and Hispanic dealers from Lawrence and Lowell, along with cities in Connecticut and New York.

While New Hampshire and Maine are among the whitest states in the nation, Lawrence — less than a mile from the New Hampshire border and just 30 miles from Manchester — is majority Hispanic.

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LePage’s comments, and their invocation of race, earned a rebuke from Rivera, who accused LePage of making “boogeymen out of people that look different” and criticized LePage’s opposition to increased addiction treatment.

A Massachusetts State Police spokesman said he could not confirm Sununu’s statistical claims about the source of New Hampshire’s fentanyl, and didn’t know where the number came from.

Lawrence’s struggle with the drug trade is well documented. The city and its surrounding areas are a “source of significant trafficking of heroin and fentanyl that entered the United States from Central America,” State Police spokesman David Procopio said in an e-mail. But so are many other cities, he added, and “the buying and selling of narcotics knows no geographic or socio-economic boundaries.”

Procopio said the department is not aware of any New Hampshire police officers conducting narcotics operations in Massachusetts, or of any plans for such a program. A Sununu spokesman did not return a message seeking clarification about the governor’s plan to have law enforcement cross state borders, or his claim that he’d been working with the Massachusetts State Police.

“Guess what? We’re going in,” Sununu said during his speech, according to video from New Hampshire television station WMUR. “We’re going to get tough on these guys, and I want to scare every dealer that wants to come across that border.”

But New Hampshire police cannot arrest people in Massachusetts unless they’re part of a federal task force, Procopio said in the e-mail. Local, state, and federal agencies do work together and share information across New England, he said, through programs such as the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

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In a statement, Lawrence Police Chief James Fitzpatrick said law enforcement in the region already work together on drug crime.

“The drug and opioid epidemic affects every city and town in this country. Here in Lawrence, we work closely — and have worked closely for decades — with our law enforcement partners in major cities across New England, including Boston and Manchester, N.H., to aggressively enforce the drug laws and stem the flow of drugs into communities,” Fitzpatrick said.

Thursday afternoon, Rivera and Sununu spoke by phone.

“The Mayor and his local law enforcement personnel have been doing a good job on this issue, but we must recognize this is a cross-border problem that requires cross-border solutions,” Sununu said in a statement. “It has no geographic boundaries and it remains incumbent upon all of us to come together and work collaboratively across our borders along with federal, state, and local law enforcement.”

Rivera, in his own news release, called their discussion productive, and said he invited Sununu to visit Lawrence to see what the city and its police department are doing to combat opioid addiction. Rivera said Sununu told him the 85 percent figure was “what law enforcement was telling him.”

In remarks to reporters on Thursday, Baker called the opioid epidemic a national problem that New England governors discuss every time they meet. As a result, states now collaborate on prescription monitoring programs.

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“I think singling out a single community or a single state is not accurate,” Baker said. “And it doesn’t represent what the vast majority of us believe to be the case.”


Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.