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65 arrests spotlight drug war

Trafficking in oxycodone seen as immense issue

By Meg Murphy
Globe Correspondent / January 12, 2012
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One in a series of occasional stories about opiate abuse and its consequences.

QUINCY - One recent morning, hundreds of police officers arrived at homes in suburbs south of Boston. In less than three hours, 63 people in 15 cities and towns, in both affluent communities and working-class neighborhoods, were arrested for passing off fake prescriptions to illegally obtain oxycodone, a highly addictive painkiller, from local pharmacies. Two more were arrested later.

“This is an immense drug war. We may have won a battle, a skirmish, but the war rages on,’’ Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey said of the Dec. 13 raids and ongoing law enforcement efforts against illegal opiate narcotics.

“There are no simple solutions. We need a multi-layered approach that includes education, intervention, and getting drugs off the streets,’’ he said in a recent interview.

Morrissey lauded the cooperation during the five-month-long investigation involving more than 200 law enforcement officers from more than two dozen local police departments, State Police, and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

“It was a worthwhile effort,’’ he said, noting that 90 percent of the individuals sought for passing fake oxycodone prescriptions - 63 out of approximately 70 - were arrested during the raids. Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz worked closely with the Norfolk prosecutor’s office to coordinate efforts across the two counties.

“This kind of sharing of information and intelligence is critical,’’ said Morrissey. “This is a war. We want to attack it any way we can - and that means we will go after you whether you are a big dealer or a small user if you’re violating the law.’’

“Every skirmish, every small victory, adds up in a drug war that itself is immense,’’ said Quincy police Lieutenant Patrick Glynn, from a city that handled six arrests during the raids. Arrests were also made in Abington, Braintree, Brockton, Carver, Hanover, Hingham, Hull, Norwell, Pembroke, Rockland, Scituate, Stoughton, Weymouth, and Whitman.

“These collaborations where we pool personnel, resources, and equipment and have everything we need are invaluable because abusers and dealers are all so mobile these days,’’ said Glynn.

Pharmaceutical companies supply opiate narcotics for a $10-billion-a-year legitimate market geared toward patients in chronic pain. But people hooked on these prescription drugs, such as OxyContin or Percocet, use fake prescriptions or make illegal street purchases to feed a habit described by treatment experts as a chronic medical problem associated with multiple relapses, depression, and often death.

In Norfolk County in 2011, opiate-related overdoses rose more than 30 percent from the previous year: 60 deaths in 2011, up from 45 deaths in 2010, according to preliminary numbers from the district attorney’s office.

“Hopefully, we put some dealers out of business,’’ said Glynn about the recent raids. “This is part of the attacking the issue at every level by targeting the abusers, dealers, distributors. We’re going up and down the scale, hitting all aspects.’’

The months of teamwork that culminated in the arrests will have swept up dealers as well as users, he said. Most arrested were processed and released on personal recognizance the same day. However, charges such as “uttering a false prescription for a controlled substance’’ indicate a more corrosive issue than an out-of-control personal drug habit, said Glynn.

An individual with a fake prescription for OxyContin can go to a local pharmacy and secure 60 pills, for instance, by using private or state insurance with a marginal or non-existent co-payment, Glynn explained. He or she is then able to sell the pills on the black market where the “profit margin is phenomenal’’; a single tablet of OxyContin sells for about $20 on the street, Glynn said, or about $1,200 for the prescribed lot.

“The drug war needs to be addressed at multiple levels, and this is a crucial part of it,’’ Glynn said. “Along with arrests, we need treatment and the desire to go clean.’’

In Quincy, he added, deaths from opiate-related overdoses have dropped since officers began carrying a nasal spray, available under the trademark Narcan, to revive addicts who aren’t breathing. Since October 2010, 101 Quincy residents have overdosed on opiates, according to police records. Fifty-three of them were saved when officers arrived in time to administer Narcan. Others recovered through other assistance, either from emergency workers, friends, or by some other means. Ten died.

The consequences of opiate abuse are well established. In 2009, the Massachusetts Oxycontin and Heroin Commission, a group created by the Legislature, reported that Massachusetts lost 78 soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq in a five-year time span while, back at home, 3,265 people died of opiate-related overdoses. The report warned that opiates were killing Massachusetts residents at a rate far faster than the two wars overseas, at 42:1. Today opiate abuse is labeled a national epidemic by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“The problem has grown so big,’’ said Norwell Deputy Police Chief John Suurhans, whose department was involved in the investigation from the start. At first, he said, police were acting on a tip about illegal prescriptions passed in Norwell but soon discovered the fake scripts were bleeding into many other communities in the area.

“We realized the magnitude early on,’’ Suurhans said. “This problem goes beyond just trying to pass illegal scripts, stealing prescriptions, and illegal possession without labels. People are using burglaries to fuel their habit. In the last several years, towns have seen an increase in crime in all these areas.

“Hopefully, this operation will have an impact,’’ he said. “A long-term solution will require all kinds of cooperation.’’

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.

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