Heroin Overdoses Surge in Middlesex County

It's been a record-setting year of tragedy and addiction.


Drugs photo via Shutterstock

With 131 opioid-related deaths through the first week of December, Middlesex County has surpassed all previous years on the books in terms of fatal heroin overdoses.

Home to hard-hit cities, including Lowell, which is said to be logging at least one fatal overdose a week, Middlesex is no stranger to the heroin crisis. Perhaps most alarming, though, is the dramatic surge in overdoses.

As the Boston Globe noted, Middlesex logged 33 fatal overdoses in 2013. This year’s 131 deaths mark a 74 percent increase from 2013 and a 27 percent increase from 2014. And the year’s not over.

The news comes on the heels of a report that found a significant number of people who overdose are taking more than just heroin.

The report, produced by WBUR’s Martha Bebinger in conjunction with Kaiser Health News, found that fentanyl was involved in 37 percent of 502 overdoses recorded in the state during the first half of 2014. It’s becoming increasingly common for heroin to be cut with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid said to be many more times powerful than morphine.

For those reasons, fentanyl has been of particular concern for law enforcement officials. Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello, who came to prominence after he stopped arresting injection drug users who wanted treatment, has seen a smattering of instances in which a bag of heroin contains no actual heroin and is simply an amalgam of fentanyl and other cutting agents. Campanello expressed concern that fentanyl is easier to manufacture than heroin in terms of labor and logistics.

Fentanyl has also been a primary target of Attorney General Maura Healey, who helped push through a law that imposed harsher sentences on those who traffic the drug. Under the new law, which Governor Charlie Baker signed in late November, an individual caught with more than 10 grams of the substance can face 20 years in prison.

According to the Associated Press, there were 630 seizures of fentanyl by law enforcement officials in Massachusetts last year, second only to Ohio.

But fentanyl wasn’t the only drug showing up in autopsies of overdose victims. Benzodiazepines, or anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax and Klonopin, were present in 13 percent of cases. Cocaine and alcohol were also found in a number of cases.