WOONSOCKET – In a town where cocaine has long been king, heroin could be making a push for supremacy in the illicit drug trade.
The latest statistics show the amount of heroin police seized in 2010 increased by a staggering 284 percent compared to the year before, while cocaine seizures dropped 54 percent. Marijuana seizures also fell – by 47 percent.
Even if you don't count what might have been the biggest heroin bust on record in the city, in which 200 grams were seized in a Dulude Avenue apartment in December, the amount of heroin confiscated by the police in 2010 would still have doubled over the previous year.
Why? The answer depends on who you talk to.
Joblessness, a sour economy and easy access to a cheap high that's shed its stigma as a ghetto drug are all cited in law enforcement and treatment circles as reasons for the rise of heroin, a powerful painkiller that's made from the opium poppy plant.
But Detective Capt. Edward J. Lee Jr. says the answer may be this simple: Greed.
Like Mother Nature, he says, heroin traffickers abhor a vacuum, and they may have found one in Woonsocket in recent years.
Not long ago, he says, heroin users who lived in the city couldn't buy the drug here – they had to go to Providence, or maybe Central Falls. All that's changed over the course of just a few years, he says.
And, while it may be a geographical truth that's eluded many entrepreneurs in legit trades, this northernmost Rhode Island city enjoys a highly enviable perch from which to move product in two states.
“A lot of the demand is coming from Massachusetts,” says Lee. “We've always had a certain allure in that respect, whether it's prostitution activity or when we had that open air drug market going in the East School Street area a long time ago, you always see a lot of people coming in from out of town.”
Heroin used to be ingested almost exclusively by intravenous injection, a habit many saw as a death sentence in the era of HIV and AIDS. But today's heroin is so pure users can get high just by snorting it, says Lee, a boon for the street peddler looking for converts.
“There may have been people who were turned off by sticking a needle in their arm,” he says.
Ken Dyer, the director of Discovery House, a clinic in East Woonsocket that dispenses methadone to recovering heroin addicts, says the latest statistics on heroin seizures “don't surprise me.” He's been in the treatment business for years and as far as he's can tell, heroin's been a perennial growth industry.
Methadone is designed to wean addicts off heroin by preventing them from going into withdrawal when they stop using their drug of choice, thus allowing them to resume fairly normal lives. Dyer declined to say how many clients Discovery House has, but he said the clinic renovated some adjacent office space about two months ago to expand.
Dyer says the sour economy cuts both ways when it comes to drug abuse. Some people strapped for cash get into treatment because it's cheaper than doing drugs; others do more drugs to escape the grim realities of joblessness and poverty.
THE FIGURES for heroin seizures in Woonsocket are part of a new catalog of “performance standards” for the police department that was initiated by Police Chief Thomas Carey. There are many reasons for concern, he says, but one that troubles him most is the fact that drugs are the root cause of so many other crimes.
Case in point: total crime in the city dropped 12 percent in 2010, the chief points out, but robberies were up 65 percent. A man arrested in a string of bank robberies recently was a known heroin user, he said.
“We're going to be relentless in the war on drugs,” he pledges. “We're not going to let up. We may not have something every day, but that doesn't mean we're not out there working on stuff.”
Some speculate the prevalence of heroin in the city is merely a mirror of national trends. The Department of Homeland Security reported just days ago that U.S. border agents seized 108 percent more heroin en route from Mexico in 2010 compared to the year before.
But Carey said the performance standards are complete for only two full years – not long enough to warrant drawing any long-term conclusions.
“Any time you're doing any type of measurements you want three measurement points, but we only have two,” he says. “It's too early to say it's a trend.”
By volume, the amount of cocaine and crack – the smokable form of the drug – far outstripped the amount of heroin police seized in 2010. But the total – 815 grams of cocaine – was less than half what police seized the year before – 1,754 grams.
By contrast, police seized 588 grams of heroin in 2010, compared to 153 grams the year before.
With a spike like that, it wouldn't surprise anyone if Landmark Medical Center saw an increase in heroin-related contacts at the emergency room. But Bill Fischer, a spokesman for the hospital, said there were only seven reported heroin overdoses in 2010 – a dip of 50 percent.
There was also six overdoses caused by cocaine – three times as many as 2000. Other drug overdoses in which no substance is specified held about steady, with 99 described as accidental and 177 intentional, according to records supplied by the hospital.
Lisa Carcifero, the director of the Woonsocket Prevention Coalition, says there is little statistical information indicating whether heroin is getting into the hands of young people. The last time the state conducted a comprehensive survey of illicit drug use at the high school level was in 2009, but it didn't break out heroin as a specific category.
Carcifero says she's not surprised that the Woonsocket police seized so much heroin, but she concedes that the prevention coalition has never been particularly focused on heroin as a specific target of deterrence. Lately, it is concerned about the rise of prescription drug abuse and marijuana.
“My first reaction is I think the police department is really aggressive and seeking to get these large distributors out of business,” says Carcifero. “I'm not sure I'm surprised. Just because we don't talk about it doesn't mean it goes away.”