‘We can’t arrest our way out of this’
Cops say heroin epidemic calls for more — and more than — drug busts
Packages of heroin from a recent arrest in Greenfield. In the six months from Oct. 1 of last year to April 1, state police conducted at least 10 stops on Interstate 91 alone, seizing quantities of heroin ranging from several bags to 599. (Recorder/Paul Franz) Purchase photo reprints »
The phrase “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem” has been heard again and again from police and politicians this winter as the opiate abuse crisis worsened and attention grew. Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan sees a divided role for law enforcement in fighting addiction — choking demand and choking supply. He sees law enforcement’s efforts best spent choking supply.
“We have to work to eradicate our community, as far as possible, of drug dealers,” Donelan said. “Running around and arresting the people who are addicted is pointless.”
Donelan’s office runs the county jail and house of correction — where perhaps 80 percent of the inmates have drug problems — and participates in the Northwestern Anti-Crime Task Force, which has been responsible for most recent drug investigations.
Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. has offered a similar assessment, but says he has limited resources. Greenfield has one detective specializing in narcotics, who also has other duties, in a detective bureau of three. Haigh said he hopes to add at least one detective to the roster this spring, thereby increasing capacity to look for dealers. But, he also says, arrests aren’t the ultimate answer.
“Arresting people isn’t always the best or the only solution. It’s a short-term, it’s a temporary solution for a long-term problem.” Haigh said. Arrests are sometimes the necessary response, he said, but he is also hoping to equip officers for when arrests aren’t the answer.
Haigh said when people need treatment it is often their families who do the looking, and he hopes to arm his officers with information they can pass on where possible to make the search easier.
Members of the regional Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force — launched last summer by Franklin Register of Probate and Family Court John Merrigan, with Donelan and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan — are working to compile a comprehensive list of resources while pushing for more help.
Anti-crime task force
Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Bucci, the county’s chief drug prosecutor, said last March — as quoted in The Recorder’s first heroin addiction series — that the scope and nature of the problem would become clearer as the new Northwestern District Anti-Crime Task Force began to conduct searches and make arrests.
One year later, Bucci said the Anti-Crime Task Force has made about 55 arrests, obtained over 50 search warrants and has compiled a comprehensive profile of the sources of the drugs. “The overwhelming majority of heroin we are seeing in the Northwestern District is being facilitated by user-dealers,” Bucci said.
In a big city, criminals deliver truckloads of heroin to mid-level dealers, who distribute it through user-dealers working for them.
“In this poor demographic we’re finding we don’t have many high-level dealers,” Bucci said. User-dealers typically travel to the area’s source cities, where they buy heroin at $5 a bag or less, depending on connections and quantity, then sell a portion to a few friends back home to finance their own habits ... and use the rest.
On Thanksgiving Day, for example, a Greenfield man was arrested after an Interstate 91 traffic stop when a state trooper noticed track marks on the driver’s hands and syringes in the car. Finding 18 bags of heroin — less than half a day’s supply for some at the height of addiction — and after receiving a call on the man’s cellphone during booking from someone ordering 10 bags, police charged the young man with possession with intent to distribute.
In this region, most user-dealers travel south to Holyoke or east to Fitchburg, and heroin resells here for as high as $20 a bag, most often $10 and occasionally as low as the big-city standard of $5, sometimes $4 or lower in bulk.
Bucci said the recent steady incidence of state police heroin busts on Interstate 91, in which the Task Force assists, have been of one or two mid-level dealers and a user-dealer traveling to the Vermont market from as far south as New Jersey.
In March, state police stopped a car on I-91 in Deerfield with two Bellows Falls, Vt., residents. Police arrested the passenger after she allegedly admitted to purchasing the 599 bags of heroin in the car, having bought it in Holyoke.
In the six months from Oct. 1 of last year to April 1, state police conducted 10 stops reported by this newspaper on I-91 alone, seizing quantities ranging from several bags to the 599.
The 55-agency Anti-Crime Task Force serves Franklin and Hampshire counties and Athol, with the proliferation of opioids an initial target.
The task force aggregates the time and resources of area police departments, is financed by a state grant and led by the State Police narcotics sergeant attached to the District Attorney’s Office.
The former Hampshire-Franklin Narcotics Task Force — much ballyhooed at the time of its formation — had quietly dissolved two years earlier due to lack of funding, leaving a vacuum with many town police departments reporting they did not have the resources for the costly, time-consuming investigations while continuing to react to day-to-day emergencies.
Like others, Bucci believes the problem calls for a multi-pronged approach beyond busting dealers, beginning with education, access to treatment to give people an option to stop, and the resources to provide these.