Community Forum Focuses on Family in Addressing Heroin Crisis

As the Legislature grapples with how to address the State’s heroin and opioid crisis, the Town held a well-attended community forum to educate residents and identify ways to best address the epidemic in Londonderry.

“We have seen heroin-related deaths more than quadruple in just one year,” Det. Sgt. Patrick Cheetham told a crowd of about 100 residents and other members of the community at the Jan. 6 forum at Londonderry High School.

Cheetham said that over the last five years the Police Department saw a dramatic increase in residential burglaries in 2015, and in completing their reports, Police found 93 percent of people arrested for those burglaries said they were addicted to heroin or had a history of addiction to the narcotic.

The panel for the forum included Jim Gamache of Londonderry, Chief Operating Officer of the WestBridge Treatment Center; Pastor Ken Glasier of Orchard Fellowship, who was the driving force behind organizing the community discussion; Fire Chief Darren O’Brien; Det. Chris Olson; Det. Sgt. Cheetham; Town Manager Kevin Smith; State Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry; and U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-NH.

Detailing efforts at the State and federal level, Carson and Ayotte said the focus is on increasing access to and financial support for treatment  – there are only 256 treatment beds in New Hampshire; diverting more resources to stopping heroin and Fentanyl at the Mexican border; and putting in place laws that make the manufacturing and distribution of Fentanyl as serious an offense as that of drugs like cocaine.

“Fentanyl can be 50 percent more powerful than heroin,” Ayotte said, noting the opiate she described as “a serial killer” is not being treated with the same level of seriousness under the law as heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances.

Also highlighting legislative efforts to address the heroin epidemic was Carson, who is a member of a task force investigating the surge in heroin addiction and getting a comprehensive bill to the Governor’s desk by Jan. 21.

Noting the importance of supporting first responders working on the front lines to revive people during overdose events, Carson said the Legislature put over $70 million into the State budget for treatment; made available by prescription the use of Narcan for medical professionals and for families whose loved ones are heroin addicted; and passed the Good Samaritan Law to ensure fear of arrest doesn’t prevent people from seeking assistance for a friend or loved one experiencing a drug overdose.

Recommendations of the task force, which the Legislature is to begin considering this week, include a State law to stiffen penalties for the manufacture, sale or intent to sell Fentanyl; the creation of a commission to study the long-term effects of Narcan; age-appropriate drug education for all students in Kindergarten through Grade 12; a prescription drug monitoring program to prevent those who are abusing narcotics from “doctor-shopping;” education for those prescribing pain management drugs; establishing a 24-hour crisis hotline; and expanding drug courts.

“We heard from over 62 entities,” she said. “But the parents – those stories just tore your heart apart. I can’t begin to convey the level of sadness and grief parents and families are experiencing from losing their loved ones to this terrible drug.”

Parents like Michelle Walker, who lost her 28-year-old son Adam to a heroin overdose last year.

Walker shared at the forum the heart-wrenching story of her son’s spiral into addiction, starting with his first encounter with narcotics when he was prescribed Oxycontin for a broken arm.

Walker said her son had an addictive personality, and when he had difficulty getting more of his medication for pain management, a friend suggested he try heroin.

After a period of incarceration, during which he completed treatment, Walker said it appeared Adam, who fathered a baby girl in 2012, had turned things around. But on May 1, 2015, Walker said she got the tragic call that Adam had died of an overdose.

His roommate at a rooming house in Manchester had died of a drug overdose just two days earlier.

Walker urged the parents at the forum to have a routine at home and know their children’s friends, especially when they begin driving.

“If their routines start to change, you’ll know. Look for the red flags. Have good family dinners and game nights,” she said.

Gamache reiterated the importance of communication between parents and their children about heroin and opioid addiction, and said 50 percent has to do with genetics.

“If someone in your family has struggled with addiction, talk about it as a family. Often those issues are family secrets. It’s really important to talk about it,” he said.

Additionally, the panel recommended keeping medicine cabinets clear of medications that are no longer being used.

Olson said on March 1, the Police Station plans to install a permanent drug take-back drop box, where anyone can turn over unused prescription medications with no questions asked.

“Often the first exposure to kids is pain medications prescribed as result of a sports injury. One or two pills lights up their brain like the Fourth of July and the process of addiction begins. It starts with use, then abuse and dependence,” Gamache said, recommending guardians push for non-addiction pain management for loved ones under the age of 21. “It takes a family. You need to step up too and help out, and talk to your families about addiction because it’s not going away.”

 “We can’t arrest our way out of it. Yes, we need to go after high level dealers and those making a profit. But those struggling, we need to get help and treatment so they can lead a productive life,” Ayotte said. “It’s not just a law enforcement problem, it’s everyone’s problem.”

However, Olson, who works extensively with families in the community trying to help loved ones suffering from addiction, said sometimes an arrest can be a step toward recovery.

“Arrest can be a means to treatment,” he said. “Often times arrest is rock bottom for people, and it’s what they need to get that treatment and stick with it. We often get phone calls saying, ‘we don’t know what to do, we need to get help for a loved one.’ We urge them to report when a crime has occurred because it helps us to do our job and will lead to the treatment they need.”

Several panelists, including O’Brien, also emphasized the importance of calling 911 for medical assistance when someone is experiencing an overdose, even if they have been administered Narcan.

O’Brien said someone who has overdosed could slip back into a coma if not administered the proper dose, and most people wake up violently, and violently ill.

The key message of the forum was family involvement, and the importance of supporting loved ones who are heroin addicted.

“Family members being involved in treatment is crucial,” Gamache said. “It’s important individuals get the treatment they need and their families wrap around them and support that individual to get better.”