Over the last six years, heroin use nationwide has nearly doubled. In Connecticut, attention has focused on the city of Torrington, where there are reports of multiple fatalities last year from heroin overdoses.
Lt. Kenneth Cole
The problem isn't exclusive to a particular town or person. Chances are you know someone who has struggled with opiate addiction. Members of law enforcement and health care providers see every day how heroin has taken hold across the state.
The state police have had a narcotics task force since 1977. Lieutenant Kenneth Cain said that narcotics work keeps everyone busy. Talking about the task force, he said, "Our guys are stretched thin. They work really, really hard, day in and day out. We have tons of cases that we could do. It's more like a pick-and-choose, because there's so much."
It was just starting to get dark as a small group of state police arrived at the Hartford barracks. They were getting a briefing on a suspected heroin dealer -- someone detectives have been watching for a while.
Ian Case is one of two sergeants who leads the North-Central office of statewide narcotics, one of five regional offices in the state police task force. Case talked with six troopers on his team while they waited for some Hartford police officers who would assist them that evening.
"He's a Hispanic male," Sgt. Case said. "About 5'9", medium build, 200 pounds, black hair. This is Detective Barnwell's case. He did a few C.I. buys there, and we got the search warrant signed this week. We're going to pull up in the van. We're going to pull up right in front. Ryan, I'm going to have you on the ram..."
The number of arrests by the task force varies month to month, depending on factors like surveillance, and coordinating undercover buys. As the briefing ended, and his men got ready to depart for the suspect's address, Sgt. Case explained they've been executing search warrants a lot in just the last two weeks.
"Since last week," Case said, "this is our third one. The south end of Hartford is big for the heroin. The north end is big for marijuana and crack. But you can get anything anywhere, you know. You just gotta know who to go see." They arrested four people during that raid in Hartford.
In the last three years, the number of investigations and arrests by the task force has steadily grown. Though marijuana seizures top the list each of those years, Lt. Cain said it's heroin that's become an epidemic in Connecticut. "Opiates, in general," he said, "pharmaceuticals, as well as heroin, 'cause that's generally where the problem starts."
The abuse of prescription drugs, like OxyContin and Percocet, has fueled the epidemic. Doctors are becoming more selective about writing prescriptions for pain out of concern that some patients may abuse synthetic opiates, and then transition to heroin. Cost is another factor. Lt. Cain said heroin is very cheap: it's anywhere from $5.00 to $12.00 a bag.
While law enforcement works to eliminate the supply on the streets, hospital emergency rooms and substance abuse treatment centers see the consequences of the demand for heroin.
In Litchfield County, Torrington received a lot of attention after at least eight fatalities in 2013 due to heroin overdoses. The city's mayor and the police chief did not respond to interview requests to talk about the problem.
Maria Coutant-Skinner, the executive director of the McCall Foundation, a substance abuse treatment center in Torrington, said heroin addiction is growing in the entire northwest corner. "Torrington is, unfortunately, typical of what we are seeing across the region," she said. "There is this sharp increase in dependence and addiction to opiates, so -- prescription drugs and heroin. We're seeing admission to our inpatient program for that being the primary substance; almost double. And [we're seeing] similar numbers in our outpatient programs."
Recently, Coutant-Skinner and a small group of community stakeholders met to brainstorm about ways to stem the problem. In December, they created a Community Task Force on Heroin Overdoses. The group said a big gap is connecting people in crisis to treatment. Typically, these are people hospitalized often for substance abuse, or who have encounters with police. Charlotte Hungerford Hospital is a member of the task force, and officials there proposed that an outreach case manager fill the gap. The state is going to fund a portion of the position.
Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Patricia Rehmer said this is unusual. "I don't know if we have ever directly given funding to a hospital like this," she said. "Usually, we do this through a centralized system. But when Charlotte Hungerford reached out to us, and we saw what was going on, we thought it was a good idea. Torrington is a small area, not centrally located, so one of our questions is: if we put more resources there, will we see more people coming to treatment?"
Law enforcement is also looking to partner with others on the issue. Back at Connecticut State Police headquarters, Lt. Cain said the state police narcotics task force is open to collaborating with substance abuse agencies, and talking more with those who write prescriptions for pain medication. "A lot of people talk about the war on drugs," he said, "and it's been 40 years -- way before my time. A war is something you win, and maybe we need to change the name of it, 'cause I don't think we're going to win the war."
Data from the chief medical examiner's office in Connecticut lists 221 heroin-related deaths last year. The final number of those who died in 2013 due to heroin will be known next month.