SALISBURY - David L'Esperance did not ask for this. He does not want sympathy or attention. He just wants to be a police officer. But his son's overdose last year has changed life for L'Esperance, the police chief in Salisbury, a gritty beach community near the New Hampshire border dotted with arcades.
Christopher L'Esperance was just 20 when he died in May. And somewhat reluctantly, the father has become an unofficial spokesman for drug awareness, drawing attention in particular to his son's killer: methadone wafers, a potent drug experiencing a lethal jump in popularity in Massachusetts, the region, and across the nation.
"We all have a mission in life," L'Esperance said this week from his office in Salisbury. "Maybe that's my particular mission: to be able to help someone else."
Fatal methadone overdoses in Massachusetts have risen more than 400 percent in recent years, according to the state Department of Public Health, up from 17 in 2002 to 86 in 2005, the latest available data. New Hampshire health officials have seen a similar increase in methadone fatalities, and a recent report released by the National Drug Intelligence Center indicates that it is a national problem, as well.
According to the NDIC, a federal agency within the Department of Justice, methadone overdoses were up 390 percent between 1999 and 2004, increasing from 786 deaths to 3,849. What is driving the increase, specialists say, is greater access to the drug as more doctors prescribe methadone rather than the controversial and addictive OxyContin.
And that access proved alluring to Christopher L'Esperance.
His father said he does not know where his son bought his methadone, just that he could not shake its hold. Now L'Esperance is pushing for changes both locally and statewide to help law enforcement fight drug addiction, and he is speaking out to educate people about the drug that killed his son.
Meanwhile, state public health officials are tracking methadone's growing popularity among those looking to get high on prescription painkillers.
"It's a very serious problem," said Michael Botticelli, the director of substance abuse services at the state Department of Public Health. "What seems to be the case is that there are people who got it for a legitimate reason and then, for one reason or another, it gets diverted and used inappropriately by somebody else."
Typically, methadone is administered in a liquid form at clinics as a way of weaning addicts off heroin. The dosage is regulated, overseen by medical professionals, and almost always taken on site. The form of the drug causing the recent problems, on the other hand, comes in a pill - typically a 40 milligram wafer or 5 to 10 milligram tablet. And with doctors prescribing it as a painkiller for everyday patients, not heroin addicts, methadone has become ripe for abuse.
Doctors began turning to it earlier this decade when OxyContin, another painkiller, became the target of lawsuits. Worried about OxyContin's addiction and death rates, medical practitioners began prescribing methadone instead, said Connie Miller, the author of the NDIC's national study, believing it would be better for patients.
The drug's popularity soon exploded, according to Miller's research, with legitimate prescriptions for methadone increasing eightfold from 2001 to 2006. Perhaps inevitably, law enforcement officials say, the increased availability of methadone created a street market for the painkiller. And the drug - especially when administered in the 40 milligram wafer, which users can break into pieces - has proved to be just as addictive as other painkillers.
"People think it's safe, especially kids," said L'Esperance. "Because they see the ads on TV, they see it in the medicine chest. They're clean. They're not coming from some meth lab. It's not a crack pipe that somebody else is using or a dirty needle."
Still, like OxyContin, methadone has been linked to overdoses, including the death of former Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith last year. The problem, according to doctors, is that it metabolizes at a slower rate than other painkillers, staying in the bloodstream for more than a day or longer. Under a doctor's care, this might not pose a problem, said Dr. Steven Sbardella, the chairman of emergency medicine at Hallmark Health System, which oversees care at Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Medford and Melrose-Wakefield Hospital in Melrose. Doctors can prescribe a patient exactly how much to take or not to take.
But when taken recreationally, Sbardella said, users are often unaware of the drug's lingering strength. Users, especially when taking methadone in combination with other drugs or alcohol, can become comatose, he said. And as a result, Sbardella's emergency room doctors have seen far more methadone overdoses, or near overdoses, in the past couple of years, especially among teenagers and people in their 20s.
"It's available. That's the bottom line," said Sbardella, whose doctors treat overdoses on a regular basis. "The trick is to find out what they've taken. And as they wake up - or some symptoms are revealed - more and more they're admitting to us that they're using methadone."
Christopher L'Esperance, who grew up in Merrimac and later in Seabrook, N.H., admitted as much to his father a couple of years before his death, and the family intervened.
"We tried everything: emergency rooms, rehab, doctors," recalled L'Esperance, who said he talked to his son everyday. "We got him an apartment out of town on his own. We never gave up."
For a time, the son would get sober, and the father would be hopeful. But then, L'Esperance said, it would start all over again. His son would become argumentative and disengaged. Jobs he had held down would disappear. Even when a good friend overdosed on methadone and died in February 2006, Christopher L'Esperance kept using.
And so, when the father did not hear from his son one Friday last spring, he put off the inevitable. He slept on his fears and then drove to his son's apartment in Groveland, where he found Christopher L'Esperance's body.
"I want him to rest in peace, and I want to move forward from this incident," L'Esperance said. "Not away from my son, but forward from this incident."
And yet, he cannot. With his son's death has come attention. Parents of other children struggling with drug addiction - or the death of a child to drugs - reach out to L'Esperance for advice or kinship. He takes their calls; he wants to help. And two decades of policework is suddenly a lot more personal for L'Esperance, too.
In recent weeks, he and other North Shore police chiefs have met to reinvigorate a regional drug task force. L'Esperance said he has talked to local judicial officials about setting up a drug court, which would offer rehabilitational services to those facing drug charges.
He and other law enforcement officials, such as Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, are pushing for legislation that would require hospitals to report overdose deaths. And L'Esperance cheered a recent decision by methadone wafer manufacturers to restrict distribution of the drug to hospitals and detox clinics, so illicit users have fewer opportunities to get it through prescriptions approved by doctors.
The less that is out there, the better, L'Esperance said from his office this week. On a shelf nearby, sat a framed picture of he and his son. It was taken, L'Esperance said, just after he was named chief in Salisbury about two years ago, back when his son was starting to grapple with his drug addiction but still nursing elusive dreams to be an officer just like his father.
Keith O'Brien can be reached at email@example.com.