On the same day that Gov. Charlie Baker visited Haverhill to tout harsher penalties for fentanyl dealers, local officials talked about the lack of progress in the city's fight against opioids.
According to social workers and first responders, the fight against heroin and fentanyl is not improving in the city. But the message is that community and legislative leaders are nowhere near giving up.
The presentation at last week's City Council meeting by Councilor Colin LePage happened a day after four people were arraigned in Haverhill District Court on felony drug charges stemming from a March 16 bust where law enforcement agents seized more than eight pounds of fentanyl from a Winter Street apartment.
Three years after the Haverhill Opioid Prevention and Education, or HOPE, task force was assembled to help stem the tide of opioids in the city, task force members Kim Boiselle and Katie Ryan appeared before the council again last Tuesday to update the group's progress.
While the city has added more health teachers in city schools and implementing Learn to Cope, a weekly program to help families of addicts, Boiselle said the drug problem is persisting.
"You've heard some people on the news saying the problem is getting better with opiates — and it's not. It's about the same, the death rates and overdoses are about the same," she said, adding that more treatment beds are needed statewide for addicts looking to recover. Ryan, who goes out into the city with Haverhill Police to check on addicts, said she is aware of five overdose deaths in the city since January.
Kirk Brigham, a first responder and director of clinical services for Trinity Ambulance Service, said Tuesday night that the city saw two overdoses a day in the month of February, with the average age of the overwhelmingly male victims being 36.
"That's not a high and it's not a low. That's about the average that it's been," said Brigham after uttering the statistics, which caused a hush to fall over the room.
Due to the strength of the opioids now on city streets, Brigham said first responders are having to administer the overdose reversal spray Narcan in larger doses. Brigham referenced a program in the New Hampshire cities of Manchester and Nashua, where addicts can come to a fire station off the street to seek help and addiction services.
"Someone with a substance use disorder can walk in and be treated like a human being and get services. They get evaluated by a paramedic — fire stations are manned 24/7. They can get referrals over to an alcohol or drug counselor and get an ambulance ride to a hospital," said Brigham. "It's something I'm definitely going to look into piloting here with our partners in the community."
LePage, who teared up at the council meeting as he spoke about the death of his son Christopher to an overdose in July 2015, urged those in attendance and watching on community television to help people who are suffering from addiction and to not give up hope.
"There are people in recovery — you can make it," said LePage. "If you know of someone who is having a problem, there are places to go."
Since his son's death, LePage has taken an active role educating children in Haverhill schools about the dangers of opioids. His efforts to bring more health educators into city schools have been successful. There are now four full-time middle school health teachers in Haverhill.
Sheriff Kevin Coppinger and several members of the city's state delegation attended the council meeting to talk about the ongoing opioid fight on Beacon Hill. Delegates who attended included state Reps. Andy Vargas, Leonard Mirra and Linda Dean Campbell; and state Sen. Kathleen O'Connor Ives.
Vargas noted Haverhill had received $250,000 in public safety grants from the state in the 2018 fiscal year, up from $100,000 the year before. In addition to procuring more grant money, the city's legislative delegation is seeking $50,000 to help Katie Ryan's continued work.
The city delegation is seeking more money for the Essex County Sheriff's Department, which Vargas said receives 40 percent less money in the state budget than counties with similar inmate populations. Coppinger said his department deals with 11,000 inmates a year.
Governor, police offer numbers
The governor joined with Essex County law enforcement officials last Tuesday to call on legislators to change the state’s fentanyl trafficking statute to help stem the flow of the lethal drug into Massachusetts, and to give prosecutors the tools to put traffickers behind bars.
At a press conference at the police station, Haverhill police Chief Alan DeNaro welcomed Baker, Secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security Daniel Bennett, Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, and police chiefs from area departments.
DeNaro offered statistics on the opioid epidemic, saying that in Haverhill over the past 27 months, officers responded to 514 overdose calls and 53 overdose-related deaths.
In Essex County, confirmed opioid overdose deaths have risen from 94 in 2012 to 273 in 2016, officials said.
"The impact this epidemic is having on our communities cannot be overstated," DeNaro said, adding that changes to the fentanyl trafficking statute are necessary for law enforcement to successfully prosecute dangerous individuals.
Baker offered other statistics, saying that in 2014, fentanyl was present in approximately 30 percent of overdose deaths in Massachusetts. Three years later, in 2017, it was present in more than 80 percent of overdose deaths in the state.
He said the problem of fentanyl, a drug that is 50 times more potent than heroin, has gone from being part of the story to be a "significant, major driving part of the story" with respect to overdose deaths.
Baker said his office filed legislation last fall that would make it possible for law enforcement to more aggressively deal with this issue.
"The legislation is not complicated," Baker said. "It does two things. The first it does is to move from a standard that defines the number of grams that has to be present in a heroin/fentanyl or fentanyl-only mix, to simply say, if the fentanyl is present, then that would be grounds to arrest somebody."
He said the second point of the bill is to have Massachusetts adopt the national drug registry, so that as that registry gets updated, the state can easily incorporate new drugs that come onto that list to this state's registry, where those substances can immediately become scheduled accordingly.
Police: 8 pounds of fentanyl found in home
Two men and two women who lived in a barricaded apartment at 212 Winter St. were charged with trafficking fentanyl after police found more than eight pounds of the deadly narcotic in their apartment, along with several hundred rounds of ammunition.
Some of the fentanyl was within reach of a 5-year-old girl, police said.
Police charged Arismendy Santana, 27, 212 Winter St., with fentanyl trafficking (six counts), resisting arrest, giving police a false name, unlicensed possession of ammunition, and conspiracy to violate drug laws.
Police later learned there were outstanding arrest warrants for Diaz out of Dorechester District Court for distributing a Class A substance, distribution of a Class B substance and conspiracy to violate drug laws.
All four were arrested on the evening of March 16 after police executed a search warrant at their apartment. Officers found a large quantity of fentanyl along with 200 shotgun shells and approximately 200 handgun rounds, police said.
All four were arraigned last week in Haverhill District Court.
Judge Stephen Abany set bail on Arismendy Santana and Wilman Diaz at $250,000 cash, which was half of what the prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Cesar Vega had requested.
Abany set bail at $100,000 cash on Milagro Santana, and $20,000 cash on Yesenia Colon. Vega had requested $250,000 cash bail on both women.
Abany scheduled probable cause hearings via video conference for April 18 on all four defendants.
According to a police report on file in Haverhill District Court, in December, state police assigned to the Attorney General's Criminal Bureau, Enterprise and Major Crimes Division in cooperation with the Massachusetts State Police Commonwealth Interstate Narcotic Reduction Enforcement Team and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration began an investigation into drug dealing at 212 Winter St.
On March 16, police approached the apartment building, and said they noticed Milagro Santana and a juvenile standing on the fourth floor balcony, appearing to act as lookouts. Police said the two started shouting into the apartment, "It's the cops. It's the cops."
Police arrested Arismendy Santana and Wilman Diaz in the building's rear parking lot. Police said Santana struggled and attempted to flee, but was soon taken into custody.
Troopers, detectives and agents penetrated the fortified barricades of the front and rear doors of the fourth floor apartment, where they said they found a 5-year-old girl sitting two feet from a 200 gram package of fentanyl, and other packages of fentanyl nearby.
Milagro Santana and Yesenia Colon were arrested inside the apartment.
Police found a total of 3.7 kilograms – 8.15 pounds – of fentanyl, 200 shotgun shells, and about 200 rounds of handgun ammunition hidden in iced tea containers. Police said they also found about a pound of a drug cutting agent, scales, grinders, blenders and a finger press, which police said is a device used for packaging "fingers" of a narcotic such as fentanyl for distribution. Police said they also seized $912 in cash from the apartment and they seized a 2004 Ford Expedition, pending possible asset forfeiture.
Police said they found paperwork indicating the apartment was being rented by Yesenia Colon. Police said they also found a fraudulent Social Security card, as well as a Department of Transitional Assistance card and a Dominican Republic passport, both in the name of Colon.