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Heroin influx spurs N.E. drug epidemic

Heroin dealers who target children as young as 12 with free samples and drug packets decorated with cartoon characters have spawned an epidemic of illicit heroin use in Massachusetts and New England, which now has the highest rate of illegal drug use among teenagers in the nation.

"The extent of the problem has snuck up on us," Governor Mitt Romney said yesterday at a meeting in Faneuil Hall with the region's governors and White House drug czar John Walters. "The war on drugs hasn't been won."

The six New England states, taken together, have the highest rate of illegal drug use of any region in the country, according to the latest survey by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Massachusetts has the highest drug use rate among the New England states, the survey found.

More than half of admissions for drug treatment programs in the Commonwealth are for heroin addiction, which is three times the national average, Romney said. In the last three years, Massachusetts heroin deaths have increased 76 percent, Romney said.

Emergency room visits in Massachusetts due to heroin use have increased 60 percent every year since 1998, according to Janice F. Kauffman, a nurse and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Last month, a former Westford high school teacher was indicted on charges of selling heroin to her teenage students and helping them shoot up in her apartment. In another highly publicized case in Connecticut, State Police arrested a dealer with 300 bags of heroin less than 1,500 feet from an elementary school.

Extremely pure and cheap Colombian heroin, imported directly to Boston, has fueled the regional epidemic, which Romney and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino described as a destabilizing public health and social crisis.

Dealers give children two bags of free heroin for every eight they sell in an effort to get them hooked, Menino said. Colombian cocaine cartels, which started showering the Massachusetts market with cheap heroin in the late 1990s, have employed sophisticated marketing tools to target young users, including brightly colored envelopes and brand logos like Batman, cartoon frogs, dynamite, and the Playboy bunny.

"At $4 a bag, heroin is cheaper than cigarettes," Menino said.

According to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, done in 2000, 6 percent of Massachusetts residents ages 12 to 17 reported illicit drug dependence or abuse, the highest in New England, compared with 5.6 percent nationally. Within the New England states overall, 4.1 percent of children ages 12 to 17 were addicted to drugs, compared with 3.2 percent nationwide.

Walters said that drug testing in schools could provide "a silver bullet" to identify young drug users early and direct them toward treatment. "Testing must be confidential," Walters said. "It must be used to help, not to punish."

School-based drug testing is not illegal, but few states and communities have adopted it, even though $2 million in federal funding is available. Romney said he had not yet formed an opinion on the issue.

Karen Tandy, administrator of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, said drug traffickers have found ways to transport heroin directly from Colombia and Mexico to Boston, bypassing the traditional entry point of New York City. "You might as well be sitting on the border of Colombia in this Northeast region," Tandy said. A bag of heroin, which a decade ago cost $40, currently retails on the street for $4. And the drug is now so pure that users can snort it, increasing its appeal for people who once avoided heroin because of the stigma associated with injecting the drug. "Purity has enabled people to shake the back-alley stigma of injecting heroin," Tandy said.

In New Bedford, street heroin has reached 90 percent purity, as compared with an average purity nationwide of 57 percent, according to the DEA.

Boston police have seen an upswing of people injecting heroin, Commissioner Paul Evans said. "Heroin has surpassed cocaine as the drug of choice," he said.

Drug deaths in Boston, mostly from heroin, jumped 76 percent from 1998 to 2001, with the greatest number of victims in South Boston and the South End, according to the city's most recent health report. Overdoses and drug-related suicides claimed 88 lives that year.

At yesterday's meeting, Walters reiterated the White House's goal to increase spending for drug treatment programs by $200 million a year, while Romney vowed to bolster the state's drug addiction programs, which in the last two years have been hurt by budget cuts.

Last year, 67,414 people were admitted to drug or alcohol treatment programs in the state, down from 75,436 in 2001. Treatment for heroin addiction accounted for more than half the admissions, 35,739.

In 2001, there were 687 federal drug arrests in Massachusetts and 16,528 drug arrests on state charges. So far this year, the DEA has prosecuted 50 heroin cases in Boston, compared with 40 during all of last year. Only Connecticut, among the New England states, had a similar number of drug arrests.

Although medical professionals and law enforcement officers have seen indications of swelling heroin use in the region for years, the extent of drug use has taken New England political leaders by surprise, they admitted at yesterday's meeting.

"I think we've been missing the boat in some ways," Romney said yesterday.

Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland, once a strong proponent of targeting drug dealers, blasted a government approach that has ignored prevention and treatment.

"We're facing a crisis situation that requires our leaders to have a sense of urgency," Rowland said. "It has to have the same sense of urgency as the war in Iraq, stopping smoking in the workplace, and putting on seatbelts."

According to the DEA, Colombian and Dominican gangs have locked up heroin distribution in urban centers, especially Boston, New Bedford, Worcester, Springfield, Lawrence, and Lowell. But local police are limited in their ability to chase high-level drug lords, according to Evans.

"Local law enforcement only deals with street-level drug abuse," Evans said. "We need more federal resources and assistance to bring to account those who profit the most from the distribution of heroin."

With the US drug market estimated at $65 billion, Tandy said, "It is a very big business."

The DEA has established special groups to track drug money and is trying to push cases as high up the distribution chain as possible, Tandy said, working closely with the Colombian government to shut down drug gangs at the source.

But the governors all expressed support for increased treatment programs, saying that the White House's request for $200 million for treatment was just a start.

"I believe we can't put a dent in supply," Rowland said. "The drugs are here because the demand is here. There are 6 million people who need treatment while only 1 million are getting treatment. We're debating nickels and dimes for American people who are dying, while we spend $87 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq."

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at

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