With police and health officials reporting a rise in fatal heroin overdoses throughout the commonwealth, a similar trend is developing on the Vineyard.
Island police and members of the drug treatment community said a shift in price and availability of prescription pills has drug addicts turning to heroin, which offers a cheaper way to get high — though at considerable risks.
While historical overdose statistics are unavailable, many say heroin use on the Island is on the rise, along with fatal drug overdoses.
Statewide the problem is now being described as a public health crisis. Massachusetts state police media relations director David Procopio said Tuesday that there have been 185 fatal heroin overdoses in Massachusetts in the past four months; the numbers do not include Boston, Springfield and Worcester.
This includes nine fatal heroin overdoses on the Cape and Islands. “These numbers absolutely represent an increased rate of fatal heroin overdoses,” Mr. Procopio said in a press release.
“It’s a growing epidemic,” Cheryl Bartlett, commissioner for the state department of public health, told the Gazette in an interview.
She said her agency does not have current overdose statistics and is relying on numbers provided by state police. On the Island, state police Sgt. Jeffrey Stone, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force, said he is aware of three fatal heroin overdoses on the Vineyard in the last year. One has been confirmed, he said, while the other two are suspected. It takes up to six months for a toxicology report to come back, he said.
Two of the overdoses were in Oak Bluffs and the third took place in Tisbury, Sergeant Stone said. He emphasized that many more overdoses were successfully halted by emergency personnel using the overdose reversal drug, Narcan, and were not fatal.
In Oak Bluffs, the two fatal overdoses were at the same home on Barnes Road, said Oak Bluffs Det. Nicholas Curelli, a member of the drug task force.
He agreed heroin use is a growing concern. “It’s always been a problem but I would say it’s definitely, absolutely on the rise,” he said.
Mr. Procopio attributed the perceived overdose epidemic to a potent strain of heroin now flooding the streets, suppliers cutting heroin with synthetic substances that increase the drug’s toxicity, and people using heroin while using other drugs, such as prescription pills.
On the Island, police and health advocates said that as prescription pills have become harder to obtain and more expensive, heroin has become more prevalent. Doctors and pharmacies have been more strict about prescribing pills, Sergeant Stone said, so drug addicts have turned to heroin, which is far cheaper. Heroin is generally sold for $200 a gram, Detective Curelli said, with sometimes half a gram going for $150. Prescription pills used to be sold for $1 per milligram, he said, so a 30-milligram Percocet pill would go for $30. A pill of that strength would now be sold for $40 to $50.
But compared to prescription pills, heroin carries different risk factors.
“What happens often with people is if they go from prescribed medications to heroin, they can’t adjust the dosage,” said Tom Bennett, associate executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services who oversees the substance abuse program there. “That is when they overdose.”
“You don’t know the quality of the heroin,” Sergeant Stone said. With a 30-milligram pill of Percocet, “you know what’s going to happen,” he said, but heroin could have been cut with other substances.
Anthony Pettigrew, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in New England, said heroin is no newcomer to the state. What may be a new growing problem is fentanyl, a fast-acting narcotic already identified in heroin batches in other New England communities. Fentanyl makes something already dangerous and deadly all the more so, Mr. Pettigrew said.
Still, he said all heroin is unsafe. “When you use heroin, you are playing Russian roulette,” he said.
Detective Curelli said he wasn’t sure if fentanyl had made its way to the Vineyard, but “if it’s anywhere else, it makes its way here,” he said. “There’s no magic barbed wire fence separating us from the world.”
Numbers for non-fatal overdoses were not available from the hospital this week, though chief nurse executive Carol Bardwell said she wasn’t aware of an increase.
Since 2007 Narcan has helped Island emergency responders save lives.
The drug is administered immediately if a person is found unconscious for an unknown reason, according to protocol. It can reverse an overdose within minutes of the ambulance’s arrival, said Oak Bluffs EMS chief John Rose.
The key is getting the call early enough to act, he said.
“It’s really tricky because they are doing something they know is illegal and they know if they call 911, that ambulance and police personnel will be at their doorstep within minutes,” he said.
Over the years, Chief Rose said Narcan has been administered to Oak Bluffs residents ranging from late teens to 50s and 60s.
The state Department of Public Health has documented 2,500 overdose reversals since the initiation of a statewide Narcan program in 2007.
Other Vineyarders work to address addiction at earlier stages.
Mr. Bennett at Community Services said addiction is “a disease that can really grab a hold of your soul” and is not getting the kind of attention it should be getting at a local and national level.
“Hopefully these kinds of tragic experiences will help us to start to address it,” he said.
He added that he just took his youngest son to a treatment center. “No family is immune to this,” he said. Dr. Charles Silberstein, a psychiatrist at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital who helps patients struggling with addiction, concurred. “It can’t be emphasized enough, most addicts don’t want to be addicts,” he said. Dr. Silberstein said he has seen a rise in fatal overdoses. “People are not using opioids for fun, they’re using them because they’re addicted and their brains have changed and they need them to feel normal,” he said.
He suggested a large public health effort is needed along with “massive public education about the risks of opioids.”
Elizabeth Berardi, a part-time Vineyard Haven resident, lost her son to a heroin overdose in January. Carter Berardi, who was 23 when he died, had just been released from a treatment center in Connecticut and was staying at a sober house.
“I am every parent’s worst nightmare, I have received the call, and I lost my son,” she said over the phone Thursday. Mrs. Berardi wrote an op-ed published in last week’s Gazette about addiction, based on her family’s experience.
She told the Gazette this week that while she knew her son’s life could be threatened by an overdose, she remained optimistic throughout his addiction.“Do we ever believe we will receive that call or that it will be our child? No,” she said.
Carter lived on the Vineyard for more than a year before he enrolled in college. During that period, he worked at the Plane View Restaurant and the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club. He loved writing, cooking and sailing. “He was extremely sensitive; he had a great, quiet but intelligent sense of humor and was just an incredibly kind human being,” Mrs. Berardi said.
She said family members had attempted to enroll him in the Vineyard House sober living facility on the Island but no beds were available.
His older brother Eugene said Carter found good and bad influences on the Island, and may have been introduced to heroin during his year here.
“The Island, being a small community, you saw both the best and the worst of it,” he said Thursday.
In the wake of his death, Ms. Berardi said she will continue to fight addiction — this time for other families. She wants to reduce the stigma surrounding heroin addiction, and increase oversight for sober living homes.
“I hope another parent does not have to stand in my shoes,” she said.