A growing use of heroin has showed up in local obituaries and police logs as new users unfamiliar with the drug overdose on it.
Also, growing numbers of people from New Hampshire and Maine are driving to Massachusetts to purchase the drug — often getting arrested in border communities.
The profile of a heroin user has begun to shift over the last two or three years, experts said, with a drug typically chained in the public’s mind to the urban poor has moved out to the suburbs and up the economic ladder.
“Most of the evidence we have, assuming Massachusetts is not much different from the rest of the country, is that, one, overall the number of users is increasing, and two, the increase seems to be not so much in inner cities or minority populations,” said professor Richard Siegel, chairman of the University Massachusetts Lowell’s psychology department.
“In the last two years it seems to be more in the suburbs; people who are perhaps higher on the socioeconomic scale, not in minority populations, and with females, said Siegel, who is also a practicing psychologist and an expert on the psychology behind addictions.
Siegel said he has seen some indications, in talking with professionals at treatment centers, that the profile of heroin “users seem to be a bit younger than it used to be, in their 20s and early 30s. It was 30s, early 40s years ago.”
As the type of people using heroin has spread beyond the popular image of a user — poor, urban, older — into younger suburban people, smaller towns unaccustomed to dealing with it, are finding themselves confronted with the criminal and medical problems.
An Andover teenager and recent Andover High School graduate died at home of a possible overdose this summer, according to police.
Police in Andover arrested two Lawrence men July 16 at 70 School St. and charged them with possession with intent to sell and possession in a school zone.
Local arrests of out-of-state people purchasing heroin has increased lately as users and dealers from Northern New England drive into Massachusetts to buy for themselves and to sell at home.
In recent weeks, Methuen police have arrested more than a dozen people for possession or sale of heroin. Many of the arrests have fallen into a pattern: Several people with New Hampshire or Maine addresses meet a person with a Lawrence address to buy heroin in Methuen. The out of state people are charged with possession, sometimes possession with intent to sell, while the original seller is charged with possession with intent or sometimes trafficking.
Officials with the Methuen and Andover police departments did not return voice messages for interviews.
Experts said the change is largely attributable to the popularity of prescription painkillers, such as the opioid oxycodone, for recreational use.
Expert: OxyContin often leads to heroin use
“Use is up over the last decade, spurred partly by popularity of prescription opiate painkillers like OxyContin,” Siegel said. “In the last two years, the kind of users have changed, becoming whiter, younger, suburban and more female.” Some treatment professionals believe use is growing in college, too.
Oxycodone, best known under the brand name OxyContin, can be more attractive, or at least less stigmatizing, than heroin because it is a medicine that comes in pill form and does not need to be injected. Pills can be chewed and swallowed, and eventually crushed and snorted for quicker effect. It also is free of the popular image attached to heroin, of a withered junkie shooting up in an alley or stealing for his next bag.
Recreational prescription drug use among young people first became popular in the late 1990s, said Professor Doreen Arcus, an associate professor of psychology at UMass Lowell and an expert in the social development of young people.
“In the last 15 years it’s gone up dramatically, but in the mid-2000s, it really skyrocketed from there,” she said.
The path to heroin use for many of the newer generation of users starts in high school, but not with heroin itself.
Each year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveys American teenagers for risky behavior over a broad range of categories, from dietary habits to fighting to drug use and sexual activity.
In the 2011 survey, the most recent available, the CDC found that nationally 2.9 percent of high school students had used heroin at least once, not a significant change from 1999. In Massachusetts, the figure was 2.1 percent, on the low end of the national range.
But nearly 21 percent of students reported taking a prescription drug without a doctor’s prescription. Statistics for Massachusetts were not available. The CDC report only listed data back to 2009, when 20 percent of students reported illicit use of a prescription drug.
Arcus said by far the most widely abused prescription drugs among young people are opiate painkillers like OxyContin. And it typically occurs among more affluent teenagers who have the means, either financially or through better access to health care, to obtain prescription drugs.
Aside from the lack of stigma, Arcus said pharmaceutical companies promoted painkillers like OxyContin as safe and non addictive. In recent years, they have had to back down from those assertions in the face of evidence that the opioids can be, in fact, addictive.
Continued use of the prescription drugs often becomes difficult for several reasons, Siegel and Arcus said. Lengthy use can result in a tolerance, leading to more use and ingesting it in ways that will take effect more quickly. Prescription drugs are also expensive and difficult to get without a prescription. Physicians are taking more care to watch for doctor shopping to obtain prescriptions and pharmacies are on the lookout for fraud. Additionally, OxyContin can be very expensive purchased on the black market.
Police making more arrests
Haverhill police on Tuesday arrested three people from Nashua in Bradford after allegedly watching a transaction take place between people in two cars. A Lawrence man also was arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute and driving violations after leading police on a chase.
Haverhill Deputy Police Chief Donald Thompson said border cities like Haverhill and Methuen are attractive for these types of transactions because of their location near both the state borders and Boston, and because of rural spaces outside their city centers.
“I’m not throwing stones at Lawrence, but that’s quite often what we see, the dealers coming out of Lawrence. Not that we don’t have dealers in Haverhill,” Thompson said.
Lawrence Police Chief John Romero said his drug task force, reconstituted last year after falling victim budget cuts in 2010, “has not missed a beat” and has made hundreds or possibly more than 1,000 arrests, many of them drug related.
Heroin found in the Northeast typically comes from South America and enters the United States from Mexico, said Tony Pettigrew, spokesman for Drug Enforcement Administration New England Division. The closest regional hub typically is New York City, and larger quantities arrive in the area through Connecticut.
In Massachusetts it sometimes disperses to smaller cities like Lawrence that are closer to New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, he said.
Romero said his city does have a local network selling into Northern New England that his renewed task force is attempting to crack. “There’s no question in Lawrence, we have people here selling for the purpose of taking it somewhere else,” he said.
Haverhill’s Thompson said the distance a buyer travels to find heroin can be a clue as to for what and whom they are buying it. “If they’re from nearby, they’re probably getting it for their own use. When we see people travelling for two or three hours, from Portland for instance, they tend to buy quantity and take it back north and sell for a profit.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services