Earlier this month the call crackled over the police radio. A man had passed out in his vehicle, which was parked and running on a street in an Oak Bluffs subdivision. A hypodermic needle protruded from the man’s leg.
When EMTs and police arrived and pounded on his window, the man stirred from his heroin-induced haze and opened the car door. He was luckier than a young woman, a single mother, who died recently of a drug overdose, or several other Islanders who died on- and off-Island in the past two years.
As Martha’s Vineyard gears up for another summer season, there is a darker reality to Island life not reflected in the tourist brochures and feature stories on the Vineyard’s many vacation charms. Police officers on the front lines of the war on drugs say heroin use has laid claim to Island lives, not just those of users, but also of the family members who struggle, often unsuccessfully, to wrest their loved ones from the grip of drug abuse — heroin, prescription pills, cocaine.
While Martha’s Vineyard is removed for the most part from the street violence associated with drug use, the relative geographical isolation the ferry provides also proves a barrier to effective in-house treatment, all of which is located on the mainland. Finding a bed for an Islander who wants help can be daunting, police said.
In a wide-ranging conversation Friday in the State Police Barracks in Oak Bluffs, a Victorian-style building just a stone’s throw from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital emergency room, where medical professionals attend to drug users on a regular basis, three members of the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force spoke about the extent of the drug problem on the Island, department efforts to stem the flow of drugs and help those who seek help, and the continuing frustration inherent in fighting an uphill battle.
State Police Sgt. Jeff Stone heads the drug force, and is assigned to the office of Cape and Island District Attorney Michael O’Keefe. It is his job to investigate all unattended deaths.
Oak Bluffs Police Lieut. Tim Williamson and Edgartown Police Lieut. Chris Dolby, leaders within their respective departments, are also members of the drug task force, and intimately familiar with the impact drugs have on the lives of Islanders, many of whom they have known since childhood.
“We’ve arrested them, we’ve gone to their dead-body calls, we’ve gone to their funerals,” Lieutenant Dolby said
Names, lots of names
Asked how many people have died of drug-related causes, the three officers began to cross-reference names with the familiarity of coaches describing players on opposing teams.
“Three Islanders died in the past six months off-Island,” Sergeant Stone said, reciting the names of the individuals and the locations of their deaths: “Falmouth, Hyannis, and Fairhaven.”
Lieutenant Williamson added another name to the list, a man who died in Worcester. “That was in 2014,” Sergeant Stone responded.
Lieutenant Dolby added another name to the list. “Another kid died in Rockland last year,” Sergeant Stone added.
Lieutenant Williamson asked about another man, using his nickname. “Yeah, that was on-Island too,” Sergeant Stone confirmed; “that was last year.”
The tally is seven dead of a drug overdose “that we know of,” Sergeant Stone said.
Later in the conversation they recall another man; he had just returned to the Island after scoring some heroin off-Island, shot up, and was found dead in West Tisbury the next morning.
The fact is that not every death caused by drugs is identified as a drug death. And then there are the near misses.
“Since then [the death of a young woman], we’ve had one kid overdose twice, same kid,” Sergeant Stone said.
“That was in Vineyard Haven,” Lieutenant Williamson added. “And then in Oak Bluffs, Travis. The guy was found sitting in the middle of the road by a passerby, sitting in a running motor vehicle passed out.”
He added, “There was one in Skiff Avenue in Tisbury.”
“That was the first of the two Chases,” Sergeant Stone said. “That kid Chase overdoes one night and then he overdosed one night later.”
“It was like 48 hours,” Lieutenant Dolby said.
The men acknowledge an increase in heroin use and medical emergencies associated with that use. An exact cause is hard to pinpoint. There appear to be several related factors. One is a relatively new ingredient drug dealers add to increase the weight and potency of the heroin they sell.
“Some of the drugs we seized on the Island were cut with fentanyl,” Sergeant Stone said, “which is another highly potent, synthetic pain reliever.”
Lieutenant Dolby elaborated. “It’s a morphine-based pain reliever that they [drug dealers] use to cut, but it’s much more potent.”
“it’s basically end-of-life medicine,” Lieutenant Williamson said; “it’s basically for people who are terminally ill to ease the pain.”
A story published a year ago in the Boston Globe, “DEA details path of deadly heroin blend to N.E.,” reported that nearly all the heroin responsible for fatal overdoses in early 2014 was produced in Colombia and shipped to Mexico, where authorities believed drug cartels added the painkiller fentanyl to make a potent combination destined for the United States.
Ruthless drug organizations are including fentanyl, an opioid 30 times more powerful than heroin, to provide a new, extreme high for addicts who often are unaware the synthetic painkiller has been added, Michael Ferguson, acting special agent in charge of the New England division of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told the Globe.
Sergeant Stone said fentanyl-laced heroin has been linked to an uptick in deaths in southeastern Massachusetts. Whether or not it played a role in the most recent Island deaths, or even what the heroin was cut with, will not be known for months, he said. Unlike what is depicted on popular television crime shows, laboratory analysis statewide is not a quick process.
“That’s our problem too,” Lieutenant Dolby said; “by the time we get that information back, it’s way after the fact.”
Moths to a flame
Following a surge of overdoses, two weeks ago the Provincetown Police department posted an alert on its Facebook page cautioning drug users to beware of potent heroin. Law enforcement warnings about potent batches of drugs can have an unintended effect — rather than deterring drug users, they can attract them.
“They find out that bag X with a skull and crossbones just killed somebody, they’re going to seek that out. They want the strong stuff; they are actually going to seek it out,” Lieutenant Williamson said.
Police warnings have one benefit, Lieutenant Dolby said. “It’s good for the families,” he said, but he added a caveat. “A lot of these family members and close friends know that their friends are strung out, and they don’t tell us about it until it’s too late.”
The men said it is frustrating. The individuals who were unwilling to cooperate when a drug user was alive are the same people in tears speaking to the police, saying they wish they had spoken up sooner.
Intervention can take several forms. One new factor is the widening availability of naloxone, an opioid antagonist that blocks the effects of opioids such as heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, codeine, and methadone, and which is more commonly known by its brand name, Narcan.
Last year, in response to an increasing number of opioid-related fatal overdoses in Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health began distributing a Narcan nasal spray. Narcan can literally bring people back from the precipice of death.
“I spoke to a family just last week,” Sergeant Stone said. “They brought their kid back twice with Narcan. And the kid that they brought back got mad at his family; he said they screwed up his high. So three times Narcan’s been used on this kid, two by the family and one by the hospital.”
The men agree it is a way to save lives, but it is not a way to solve the problem, and can make make the problem worse. It is also something of a parachute for those who fly too close to the sun.
Lieutenant Williamson said the life-saving properties of Narcan are evident, but at the same time it may enable and embolden drug users.
The full extent of the heroin problem is difficult to ascertain because overdose statistics are only a small reflection of the actual number.
Lieutenant Dolby said the hospital emergency room treats any number of overdose patients, numbers the police are not privy to because of medical privacy laws.
“We hear about the walk-ins off the street,” he said. The men agree the numbers are much higher than any numbers they can provide.
Asked to describe trends, the men say they see a transition from opiates to heroin. As pills become harder to acquire, drug users turn to heroin, first snorting it and later injecting it. The users are younger, as well, a reflection possibly that there is no longer a stigma associated with heroin use.
They agree, addiction cuts across all facets of society.
Drug dealers here fall into two categories: the small-time dealers who travel off-Island and bring back small quantities on a regular basis to support their own habit, and professional dealers who come here to profit from the Island’s high markup.
Another trend at the state level is the push to do away with mandatory sentences for drug crimes, including those connected to trafficking.
“If they’re going to do that, then they have to back it up on the treatment end,” Lieutenant Dolby said. “Let’s face it, the police aren’t the answer to this problem.”
“The families ask us what to do,” Sergeant Stone said. “We don’t even know what to do. We can suggest things that they’ve already tried, but we don’t have the answer.”
“Whether it’s substance abuse, mental health, alcoholism — we’re on the front lines, we’re dealing with it all the time — these social service agencies — it seems like we’re the ones always dealing with the fallout when things don’t work or go well,” Lieutenant Williamson said.
Asked about Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, Lieutenant Dolby said he thinks they do what they can, but they are also “overwhelmed.”
With few options available, police often fall back on policing rooted in the closeness of the Vineyard community. As an example, Lieutenant Williamson said he chose not to arrest the man found unconscious in his running vehicle with a needle, on the stipulation that he seek treatment. Lieutenant Williamson said that if the man slips up, he still has the option to charge him with a crime.
“Our interest is not in stats and charging people,” Lieutenant Williamson said. “And I think people sometimes think that’s all we’re interested in. Because I like to think of myself as a problem solver, not just a law enforcement officer. I want to help this family and this kid with his addiction problem. So I’m more interested in seeing him get well than me charging him with possession of heroin.”