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The NH Opioid Crisis Comes From Mexico — And Massachusetts

When Granite State politicians talk about the opioid crisis and drugs moving across the border, they’re talking about Mexico.

But sit down with law enforcement fighting the flood of fentanyl into New Hampshire, and their “southern border” is Massachusetts.

Specifically Lawrence, Mass.

The drugs smuggled across the Mexican border and sold to gangs in Lawrence, largely from the Dominican Republic, make up the vast majority of illegal drugs abused in New Hampshire, according to New Hampshire’s U.S. Attorney Jane Young and Paul Spera, the assistant special agent in charge for the DEA.

“Those organizations have a connection with Mexican cartels, and so they’re able to get bulk quantities, distribution level quantities, kilogram quantities of the drugs,” Spera said. “They’re the organizations. They’re the drug distribution networks that have direct connections to the Mexican cartels.”

Synthetic drugs, like fentanyl and methamphetamine, are cheaper, deadlier, and more abundant than anything on the streets in decades. Young, who oversaw drug prosecutions as New Hampshire’s deputy attorney general, said the drug market in Lawrence is having a more devastating impact on the Granite State than in the past.

“There wasn’t this sort of free market in the next state that we see now. And so as time has evolved, what we see now are a lot of people who can pool money amongst other people, whether friends or community and go down and get –what I would tell you, having done this for the bulk of my career — a staggering amount of drugs.”

United States Attorney Jane Young says drugs supplied by Mexican cartels are flooding New Hampshire streets.

It used to be big news when police seized a kilo of cocaine, Young said. That amount, about 2.2 pounds, can sell for between $25,000 and $30,000. Now, a kilo of fentanyl can be had for about $6,000.

Spera said the drugs start out as precursor chemicals shipped directly from China to Mexican cartels with ports on the Pacific coast. Those chemicals make their way north to factories in Mexican warehouses and similar buildings, where the drugs are manufactured. Cartels are out of the agriculture business and no longer worry about weather, blight, pests, or growing seasons. They can make the drugs year round.

Once produced, the drugs are typically packed into vehicles headed to the United States — hidden in produce trucks, or in secret compartments of passenger cars. Cartels generally use people with legitimate reasons to cross the border to get the drugs and money back and forth, he said.

On the East Coast, in New York and in New England, Dominican gangs control the trade. They sell at street level, and they can set up somewhat sophisticated schemes to move the drugs. These gangs have been known to operate a delivery service, with the equivalent of a customer service rep taking orders during set business hours over the phone and arranging drop offs throughout the day. Spera said the operator taking the calls can be in the U.S., but just as often that person is in the Dominican Republic.

The people the Lawrence gangs sell to are rarely other gangs or major dealers, according to Young. Even when buying a kilo of fentanyl or bulk methamphetamine, they aren’t budding kingpins and wannabe Walter Whites. Typically, they are addicts selling to support their own habits, Young said.

“Today, it’s a lot of individuals who, because of their addiction, can go into the Merrimack Valley, buy significant quantities of drugs, and come back and flood the street. I don’t think that there’s another word to say that. They can flood it into the street for much smaller amounts of money, but with much more deadly consequences,” Young said.

Fentanyl now fuels New Hampshire’s opioid epidemic, with hundreds of overdoses each year. The number of fatalities is declining somewhat this year, though Young suspects the lull is because of how normalized opioid addiction has become. Many people now carry Narcan, which can stop an opioid overdose death.

Narcan can save lives. But without treatment, it also leaves people mired in the throes of prolonged addiction and misery, Young said.

“That is where we are now. Horrific.”

Spera worries about the growing market for methamphetamine. The meth coming in from Mexico is as much as 98 percent pure.

“It’s an absolute issue that’s coming into our state,” Spera said.

The amount of methamphetamine seized by the Manchester DEA office, which includes operations in neighboring states, more than doubled last year to 52 kilos. The drug is also linked to violence. Several officer-involved shootings in the past few years involved a meth user acting erratically and dangerously. The drug ratchets up the danger for communities and police, Spera said.

Spera’s worry is compounded by how openly the gangs operate. Recently, an undercover DEA agent stood on a Lawrence street corner waiting to meet a contact as part of an investigation. The agent had traded his typically clean-cut look for long hair, a scruffy beard, and street clothes. The kind of look that says, “I just got out of bed.” As he waited for the contact, a car pulled up, and the driver tossed out a bag containing a small amount of fentanyl and a card with a phone number.

“Let me know if you ever need anything,” the driver said before peeling off.

The Facts Behind Sununu, Lawrence Mayor’s Fight Over Opioid Crisis

It’s not often where there is a war of words between a governor and a mayor of neighboring state. Yet, that’s what happened last week between New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence, Mass., when discussing who’s to blame for the Northeast’s growing opioid crisis.

“It’s coming from Lawrence,” Sununu said Wednesday at the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce breakfast. “Eighty-five percent of the fentanyl in this state is coming straight out of Lawrence, Massachusetts.”

He also pointed to Lawrence again in an interview later that day with Boston Herald Radio, saying the city’s status as a “sanctuary city” is causing problems for New Hampshire.

Sununu said he had a meeting with other New England governors when they met in Washington D.C. for the National Governors Association annual winter meetings.

“I sat down with [Massachusetts Gov.] Charlie Baker and all the governors from the New England regions and said we’re going to cross borders, you better get ready,” Sununu said. “I’m working with the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] in Bedford, working with the DEA in Boston, our state police, their state police.”

Sununu then vowed that “we’re going in.”

“We’re going to get tough on these guys, and I want to scare every dealer that wants to come across that border,” he said. “We’re not giving dealers nine months on parole and probation anymore. We’re putting them away for the five, 10 and 15 years that they deserve.”

Sununu’s “tough on drugs” rhetoric makes sense — albeit an interesting political move to pick a battle with a town in another state. He’s the first Republican governor in 12 years and the opioid crisis is still rampant in New Hampshire. He campaigned on the epidemic being the number one priority the state faces and depending on what he does to curb the crisis in his two-year term, could be a factor in his 2018 reelection campaign.

Despite several media reports about the subsequent back-and-forth between Sununu and Rivera, there is some legitimacy in Sununu’s claim about Lawrence being a hot bed of activity for heroin and fentanyl.

Most of the heroin coming to New England originates in Colombia and travels through Mexico, according to a 2013 report from The New York Times. Despite an increase in the number of seizures along the southern U.S. border, enough is still getting through to major distribution centers, including Philadelphia and New York, which then makes its way into northern New England, “often through Lowell, Lawerence, and Holyoke, Mass.”

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2014 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, most heroin supplies in the New England region are brought in from New York along the vast interstate highway system, naming I-95 and I-93 as the major routes for New Hampshire’s heroin trafficking routes. The report also named Lawrence as a main distribution center for northern New England states.

“Massachusetts also serves as a staging area or interim transportation point for heroin being transported north,” the report states. “Lawrence and Lowell, north of Boston, are distribution centers for northern New England and Canada. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are supplied with heroin chiefly by drug groups in northeastern Massachusetts, particularly in Lawrence and Lowell.”

Western Massachusetts is one of the staging areas for distribution in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire because drug dealers from those states who want the product have to drive to Massachusetts to get it because drug penalties in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire are stricter in the three northern New England states.

Because Lawrence sits on the I-93 highway, police have said many drug deals occur at fast-food restaurants off the highway exits.

It is so widely known that Lawrence is a main distributor for the opioid crisis, that even Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said it to the Times in 2016.

“Massachusetts is the epicenter for the heroin/fentanyl trade,” she said. “From Lawrence, it’s being trafficked and sold all over the New England states.”

For example, undercover detectives followed a car on a heroin buying mission from Manchester to Lawrence and back on Sept. 15, 2015, which resulted in one arrest.

Still, despite these reports and former statements that show Lawrence is a main distributor of heroin and fentanyl for New England, Rivera took offense that Sununu called out his city.

“Just like the President is finding out that health care is complicated, I think that the governor is going to find out that this is a complicated issue,” Rivera said in a hastily scheduled press conference on Thursday. “I’m not sure that he meant to threaten the sovereignty of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but he did.”

One of the major problems Rivera had was with Sununu’s claim that 85 percent of the fentanyl entering New Hampshire came from Lawrence.

“I would ask you guys to ask him where he got that number from,” he charged reporters. “I don’t know if it’s a true number. I think the problem is if you think like ‘oh you snuff out what’s happening in Lawrence, it will all go away.’ I know he’s only been on the job 60 days, but the reality is it’s like water, it will find another place to go.”

Rivera and Sununu eventually spoke on Thursday afternoon, and Sununu released a statement after the call.

“The Mayor and his local law enforcement personnel have been doing a good job on this issue, but we must recognize this is a cross-border problem that requires cross-border solutions,” Sununu said. “It has no geographic boundaries and it remains incumbent upon all of us to come together and work collaboratively across our borders along with federal, state and local law enforcement.”

Sununu’s office has not offered any evidence of his “85-percent” claim, but regardless, Lawrence’s role in the opioid crisis cannot be disputed.

Baker, the Massachusetts governor, weighed in on the controversy, and said, “I do view this as a problem that affects us all and I think singling out a single community or a single state is not accurate.”

New Hampshire Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn offered his two cents.

“Instead of antagonizing key regional partners in our collective fight to combat the devastating effects of the opioid crisis, Governor Sununu should be fighting for our state’s successful Medicaid expansion program which has helped over 100,000 Granite Staters gain access to mental health and substance abuse treatment,” he said in a statement. “New Hampshire needs steady and serious leadership from the Governor’s office that focuses on a holistic approach to solving this public health crisis, not reckless, cavalier comments.”

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