When he was about 10, Jonathan Doherty, a curious boy with a penchant for starting conversations with strangers, earned the nickname Mr. Mayor.
Making friends and trying new things came effortlessly to Jonathan. So when his sunny disposition took a turn and his schoolwork began to suffer as a teenager attending junior high school in Lynn, his father, Paul Doherty, took him to see a local physician.
The diagnosis was a shock to the family.
“I was told if you don’t get your child some kind of long-term treatment, he could die,” Doherty said. “We never thought it would be that bad.”
At age 15, Jonathan was addicted to heroin, a habit he picked up after he and some classmates began experimenting with marijuana. Then it was on to prescription painkillers, including OxyContin, which when crushed for snorting or injecting, offers an intense high similar to heroin.
“It kind of took a turn for the worse because Percocet and OxyContin, all those types of pills are so addictive to these kids. Within weeks you’re addicted,” Paul Doherty said. “Jon had an addictive personality and didn’t care if it was baseball or drugs, and it escalated rapidly, and the drugs were available. . . . We ended up in a treatment program.”
Jonathan’s path to addiction is hardly unique. Health and law enforcement officials north of Boston have seen a rapid, ongoing spike in the abuse of prescription opiates and the most notorious street version — heroin — that they link to an increase in overdoses and crime. In 2009, the Massachusetts OxyContin and Heroin Commission declared the abuse of OxyContin and heroin an epidemic.
The panel, made up of state legislators and health experts, made a series of recommendations, from improving ways to discourage doctor-shopping — a commonly used practice to obtain multiple prescriptions — to investing in recovery programs, including sober schools such as Northshore Recovery High School in Beverly.
But some health officials contend that the addiction is not being treated with the same urgency that is applied to less stigmatized health problems.
“The response to a pandemic flu or meningitis is ‘The sky is falling!,’ and for [overdoses] is, ‘Eh, they’re just druggies,’ ” said Frank Singleton, Lowell’s health director. “They’re spending $1 million to spray for mosquitoes because one person might die. Triple E scares people, while ‘druggies cause their own problems.’ ”
Last year, Lowell recorded 31 deaths as a result of opiate overdoses, up from 19 in 2010. Of the 31 deaths, nine were attributed to heroin, compared with one in 2008. Since 2003, a total of 192 people have died in Lowell of opiate-related overdoses, with test results on 20 additional deaths still pending, according to data collected by the city’s Health Department.
Dr. Wayne Pasanen, vice president for medical affairs at Lowell General Hospital, said addiction is a “raging epidemic,” and more people die of opiate overdoses in the United States than from firearm injuries.
“There’s been an eightfold increase of deaths from opiate overdose in over 20 years, and that’s not what we call progress in public health,” said Pasanen, who is also the medical director at Habit OPCO, an outpatient treatment clinic for addiction that has locations in Lowell and Lawrence. “We have 764 patients that are being treated in Lowell for opiate abuse, and that’s just scratching the surface for people in Greater Lowell.”
The spike in heroin use in the region has to do with economics, according to several area police chiefs. The street value of one 80-milligram OxyContin pill is $80, compared with $5 to $10 for a baggie of heroin containing approximately .03 grams, area police and health officials said.
Lowell Police Superintendent Kenneth Lavallee said there is a two-way narcotics pipeline between Lowell and Lawrence that is making heroin easily available and leading to more criminal activity.
“This whole prescription pill abuse issue has created a new generation of drug addicts. Kids who are hooked on prescription pills move on to heroin because it’s cheaper,” Lavallee said. “It’s no longer an inner-city problem. It’s really fueling most of the crime in the Merrimack Valley: shoplifting, break-ins of motor vehicles and houses, and prostitution.”
Heroin sales account for the bulk of illegal drug sales in Lawrence, said Police Chief John J. Romero.
“We have people breaking into houses, breaking into cars to steal things that they can carry out, that they can either sell or trade for drugs,” Romero said. “The violent crime as well, we see home invasions and a lot are drug-related; a lot of our homicides are drug-related.”
Since its return in April after a two-year hiatus because of budget cuts, Romero said, the Lawrence Police Drug Unit has made approximately 400 arrests. The primary buyers, according to arrest data, are from neighboring New Hampshire, where supply is harder to come by and where secondary dealers can sell drugs for double the cost, said Captain Roy Vasque, who runs the Special Operations Division in Lawrence.
Lawrence’s proximity to interstates 93 and 495 makes it an ideal distribution hub. Approximately 75 percent of those arrested in Lawrence for possession of heroin live in New Hampshire, while others span the region, from Billerica to West Newbury, Vasque said.
In Salem and surrounding communities, although not hubs, the drug problem and the crimes it attracts have affected a wide landscape, said Salem Police Chief Paul F. Tucker.
“These are our kids using these opiates. These are our neighbors, housewives, business people,” he said. “The other problem we’ve seen is a spike in the purity. When the price goes down and the purity goes up, the addiction that grabs somebody is much harder to get away from.”
Dangerously high purity levels of heroin have led to more frequent overdoses over the years, prompting state health officials in 2007 to launch a 12-city pilot program focused on the use of Narcan. That drug quickly blocks the effects of opiates for about 50 minutes, giving an overdosing user time to seek help.
Among the 12 communities were Lynn and Gloucester. Since the program has been in effect in Gloucester, there has been a decrease in emergency room transports of overdose victims, due in part to a better use of resources, including becoming the first community in the state to have members of the fire and police departments carry the inhalant form of Narcan, said Joan Whitney, director of Healthy Gloucester Collaborative, part of the city’s Health Department.
In response to an uptick in overdoses in February 2011, the collaborative formed a high-risk task force last fall comprising emergency responders, faith leaders, physicians, and behavioral and health experts to implement response policies for high-risk users.
More users seeking treatment is the reason why the student population at Beverly’s Northshore Recovery High School jumped from 12 students in 2006 to more than 70 in 2011, said principal Michelle Lipinski, who counts Jonathan “Mr. Mayor” Doherty of Lynn as one of her graduates. Jonathan’s father, Paul Doherty, credits Lipinski and the school with saving his son’s life.
Prior to graduating in 2011, Jonathan, now 19, continued to use his gift of gab, traveling with Lipinski and publicly sharing his story with students in schools throughout the country, with members of Congress, and on Anderson Cooper’s daytime talk show.
But earlier this month, after a heroin relapse, Jonathan checked himself into an 18-month program at a long-term facility on the West Coast, his father said.
“There’s a lot of shame and guilt, a lot of things that shake out of his addiction that he has to deal with now, with relationships,” Doherty said. “Something that started casually as an adolescent escalated so quickly. He’s more than aware of it.”