East Providence contends with growing heroin epidemic


EAST PROVIDENCE — The sobering news here in city matched the chilling numbers reported late last week by the State Police and the Rhode Island Department of Health. Thirty-eight people have died as a result of drug overdoses across Rhode Island since the first of the year, one of those being a 25-year-old East Providence man.

According to East Providence Police Chief Joseph Tavares and EPPD Vice Sergeant Diogo Mello, the death locally last month was one of 10 cases of heroin related overdoses to take place in the city so far since January 1.

Internationally, Philip Seymour Hoffman became the latest star-crossed face of heroin addiction, the 48-year-old award-winning actor succumbing to an overdose on Sunday, Feb. 2. The tragedy of Mr. Hoffman follows innumerable other deaths and near-deaths of high-profile heroin addicts.

Several recent stories in the national media about Mr. Hoffman's death cited some jarring governmental statistics heretofore not overly publicized since their release some two years ago.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration the number of heroin users in the United States nearly doubled over a five-year period, to 669,000 in 2012 from 373,000 in 2007. Figures from the same agency noted those who abused or grew dependent on heroin more than doubled in 10-year span to 467,000 in 2012 from 214,000 in 2002.

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on drug-related deaths released in November of last year reinforced those numbers. The reported stated "deaths from drug overdose have increased sharply in the past decade," claiming 40,393 alone in 2010.

Since the first of this year locally, East Providence Police have answered those 10 calls of overdose cases, more in the first six weeks of 2014 than for all of 2013, according to Sgt. Mello, who led the department's much-heralded "Operation Blindside" drug interdiction effort last year.

The focus of "Blindside" was ridding the city of dealers. A success to a significant degree, many of those taken in were peddling cocaine and prescription pills. In just the last several months alone, however, heroin distribution has surged somewhat unexpectedly, the vice sergeant admitted.

"We made some arrests during 'Blindside,' but this just kind of snuck up on us," Sgt. Mello said. "We knew there was a problem, and that we needed to get a handle on it. But now we're playing catch-up. Everyone knows about 'Heroin Highway.' We've dealt with it in the past, but that was when it was going through the city. Now, it's staying here. We've tried to send a message. We've put in the resources. We've had high visibility, but lo and behold here we are."

Many of those who have become hooked on the drug do not fit the stereotypical mold of an addict. They're lawyers, doctors, nurses, law enforcement and public safety personnel, plumbers, carpenters, electricians. In other words, they're your average everyday citizen.

"From what we've seen, a lot of them are people who have gotten injured on the job," Sgt. Mello said. "They're prescribed percoset or some other pain medication. They get addicted. They run out of scripts and turn to heroin because it's cheaper and easier to get. The next thing you know, they're in a place they can't get back from. It's terrible. It's really, really bad. It's sad because most addicts don't want to be addicts."

"This isn't just an East Providence problem. It's not isolated to the state. It's a nation-wide problem," said EPPD Chief Joseph Tavares. "The Hoffman death put a spotlight on the situation. It showed it's not just the 'junkie' who is dying because of this. Heroin doesn't discriminate because of race, gender, religion or what have you. The public has to understand, the families and friends, this is an epidemic."

In city, Chief Tavares has assigned two additional officers to the Vice Unit in an attempt to corral the matter. He said the department is strictly adhering to the "Good Samaritan" legislation passed recently, which mandates law enforcement and criminal justice arms assist in getting victims help rather than just arrest and prosecute. In addition, the EPPD is working closely with the East Providence Prevention Coalition to make the community aware of what is transpiring in their neighborhoods.

"We're taking a comprehensive approach," Chief Tavares added. "There are a lot of stakeholders in this effort."

The chief pointed to a recent car accident in city where three people were injured by a driver alleged to have been under the influence of heroin. Many of the breaking-and-entering and shoplifting crimes in East Providence are also drug related. Ultimately, he said it's incumbent upon those who are aware of addicts to persuade them to seek help before they hurt themselves or others.

"We're putting as many resources as we can on this matter," the chief added. "It's one of the top priorities of this department at this point.

Editor's note: This is the first in an upcoming week-long series of stories highlighting the emerging heroin epidemic locally and nationally.

Part Two, Tuesday, Feb. 18...Heroin's growing potency

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