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Heroin tops north area’s illegal drugs

By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / March 20, 2011

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Cheap heroin continues to flow into Lynn and Lawrence, making it the largest single illegal drug on the streets of Massachusetts communities north of Boston, according to State Police Lieutenant Alan C. Zani, who heads the Essex County Drug Task Force.

In a wide-ranging interview, Zani said his nine-member Drug Task Force seized about $18 million in illegal street drugs last year, with the officers arresting 405 dealers and users. Heroin was the major drug seized, with 465,171 dosage units taken off the street, followed by 104,498 grams of cocaine and 2,654 pounds of marijuana.

Other drugs that were confiscated during arrests include 24,066 ecstasy pills, 3,684 Percocets, 553 OxyContin and oxycodone pills, and $20,000 worth of steroids. In addition, 63 guns — including two machine guns — were also seized from dealers last year.

Zani and Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett said the seizure of guns represents an increasingly violent leadership in the top levels of illegal drug distribution.

“Our society is becoming increasingly violent, and there is a reckless disregard for the sanctity of life,’’ Blodgett said in a prepared statement. “I am certain that the seizure of 63 firearms and the arrests of the defendants who possessed them saved lives.’’

Zani, who has worked on the task force for 20 years, said that Lynn and Lawrence have long been major source centers for heroin and other illegal drugs for much of New England. Other major drug distribution centers in New England include Boston, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Springfield, and Central Falls, R.I.

According to Zani, Lynn and Lawrence serve different geographic markets. Lawrence is the main source point for heroin that is sold in New Hampshire and Maine. Lynn serves as a distribution center for southern Essex County users, said Zani.

Zani said heroin is controlled mostly by Mexican cartels. He said the illegal traffickers send the drug two ways: in trucks with secret compartments that make their way over the border and eventually to Lynn and Lawrence, or in “mules,’’ or people who swallow up to 500 grams (coated with wax or wrapped in a condom) before flying from South America to Boston.

“Traditionally, it was a blue-collar drug, but it’s no longer a blue-collar drug,’’ said Zani, who said single doses of heroin are being sold on the street for less than $4. “Everybody uses it now. It cuts across socio-economic lines.’’

The task force, which had as many as 12 State Police personnel four years ago, has been reduced in numbers in recent years because of the downturn in the economy, said Zani. In addition to coordinating its investigations with the FBI, ATF, the Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies, it works with local police departments. Zani said 320 arrests were made in Lynn and Lawrence in 2010, with another 85 spread out through Essex County.

Besides the Mexican hierarchy, Zani said local gangs — such as the Bloods, Crips, and Deuce Boys — have been targeted as major drug distributors in Lynn and Lawrence.

While the task force and Blodgett’s office could not provide complete arrest statistics from before 2010, Zani said the numbers mirror previous years. Zani said the major change he’s seen over the last year is the influx of 30-milligram Percocets into the market. At a little more than $20 per pill, the drug is crushed and snorted by users. Zani said the Percocets and other pills, such as OxyContin, are being shipped mostly from Florida, which has different laws regarding pain clinics. He said the 30-milligram pills are now being favored over once-popular street drugs like 80-milligram OxyContin tablets, which can no longer be crushed and snorted.

Zani also said marijuana continues to be in demand, and is as popular as ever among high school and middle school students. “Marijuana is a gateway drug,’’ he said, warning that the THC content is today’s street marijuana is much higher than it was decades ago.

“It’s not the marijuana that people may have smoked in the 1970s. It’s totally different and a much more potent high,’’ he said. “People start out smoking weed, and it loosens your inhibitions, and then someone gives you Percs and you’re off to the races.’’