Deadly heroin mix plagues region; ‘Drop Dead’ blamed for surge of overdoses


Source: South Of Boston
Web Page: http://ledger.southofboston.com/articles/2006/12/09/news/news02.txt
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The first indication that Michael David Sharpe used heroin came too late: Holly Wainwright found her 23-year-old son’s body slumped on the bathroom floor on Thanksgiving Day, evidence of the fatal dose nearby.

Though a toxicology report is not yet final, Hanover authorities believe Sharpe is the most recent to die on the South Shore from an extremely potent mix of heroin and Fentanyl, known on the street as ‘‘Drop Dead.’’

The Hanover man’s death is among a succession of overdoses recently - some fatal, most not - that have led federal drug agents and local emergency responders to sound the alarm over heroin’s ever increasing death toll.

In October and November five heroin users are known to have died after overdoses in Brockton, Plymouth, Middleboro, Whitman and Hanover, according to the Plymouth County District Attorney’s office. Pending toxicology tests might increase that figure.

In Whitman, a spike in overdoses has spurred public safety officials to alert residents to the drug’s ‘‘widespread use’’ in town. Since September, paramedics there have responded to at least 20 overdoses, far outpacing last year’s total of 32, according to state and local records. In all but one of the cases, paramedics arrived in time to inject a life-saving dose of Narcan, a drug that counteracts heroin’s slowdown of the central nervous and respiratory systems. In the other case, in October, they arrived to find a man in his 20s dead.

‘‘It’s affecting a whole cross-section of society,’’ said Whitman Fire Chief Timothy P. Travers, who said he hopes news of the overdoses helps to dislodge the myth that heroin plagues only hopeless junkies in urban alleyways.

‘‘It’s not just the poor, homeless guy; it’s in affluent families as well,’’ Travers said. ‘‘It’s right here in quiet little Whitman.’’

On the South Shore, yearly nonfatal overdoses which lead to emergency room treatment have not dipped below 900 since 2003, according to available state data.

Though the presence of heroin here is by no means a new phenomenon, authorities are becoming increasingly concerned as purity levels escalate and prices drop.

‘‘Some heroin ranges as high as 70 percent (pure), whereas 15 years ago, it was 15 to 20 percent,’’ said Hanover Police Chief Paul Hayes, who serves as vice president of the New England Narcotics Enforcement Officers Association.

Heroin laced with Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate approximately 50 times more potent than heroin, has also led to numerous deaths in Southeastern Massachusetts, Hayes said.

‘‘Unfortunately, they don’t know what they’re getting when they buy it,’’ he said.

Law enforcement officials also say recreational use of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin has created another path to heroin addiction.

‘‘The switch to heroin is common because it’s cheaper,’’ Anthony Pettigrew, spokesman for the Boston bureau of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said. ‘‘They start out paying $40 for an OxyContin tablet, but they can get a bag of heroin for $4 or $5.’’

Soaring heroin production might explain the low prices. Since 2001, a production boom in post-Taliban Afghanistan has flooded the world drug market, even as harvesting falls off in countries like Colombia, where the bulk of New England’s heroin is believed to originate.

South Shore deaths from heroin and other drugs in the opioid drug class - it includes morphine - had risen from 24 in 2000 to 37 by 2004, a 55 percent increase, the latest state figures show.

Hayes, the Hanover police chief, said surges in nonfatal overdoses seen in the area could be due to dangerously cut heroin like ‘‘Drop Dead.’’

Brockton paramedics responded to six overdoses in less than a week last month, the second disturbing cluster of overdoses there this fall.

‘‘We did three in one day before 6 p.m.,’’ said Patrick Travers, a paramedic with a private ambulance company in Brockton.

Tom Ford, a firefighter and paramedic in Whitman, said it’s the worst he’s seen in his seven years at the department.

Ford responded to three overdoses last month. The 911 calls were made by a girlfriend, a boyfriend, and a parent of the drug users, he said.

‘‘If these people don’t find them while they’re overdosing, they find in the morning, and they’re long since dead,’’ Ford said.

It was about 9 a.m. Thanksgiving Day when Holly Wainwright walked into the bathroom to the tragic scene which continues to replay in her mind.

Wainwright described her son as a passionate musician who had a proclivity for helping troubled friends and who was trusting to a fault.

‘‘It’s just a very sad waste,’’ Wainwright said. ‘‘He was a bright shining star and my biggest hope.’’

John P. Kelly may be reached at jkelly@ledger.com .