Melissa Welch, off heroin for less than a month, gets support and a kiss from her mother, Susan.
Melissa Welch, off heroin for less than a month, gets support and a kiss from her mother, Susan.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

TAUNTON — Three times last week, in the long stone’s throw between a small shopping center and a tired gas station, a 35-year-old woman and a 27-year-old man were felled by heroin. One night, they were found outside a CVS pharmacy. Another afternoon they overdosed on a nearby sidewalk. And on a third day during rush hour, they crumpled by the doors of the gas station.

Three times in four days for the same couple. Three times in a heavily traveled area. Three more times that Taunton has added to a startling number of drug overdoses since the beginning of the year.

By Tuesday, that number stood at 123, with seven of them fatal. Eight nonfatal overdoses occurred on Sunday alone.

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The drumbeat of overdoses, day after day, week after week, is exacting a psychic and physical toll on this old mill city of 56,000 people, where high-tech businesses seek to replace the past prosperity of silversmithing, iron works, and textile manufacturing.

“We don’t want to be seen as the heroin capital,” said Jennifer Bastille, a program adviser for the city’s Safe Neighborhood Initiative.

But that view of Taunton has taken hold in a state in which heroin overdoses, including more than 185 deaths in less than three months, have become a public-health crisis from Cape Cod to the Berkshires.

The White House drug czar appeared here one day last month with Senator Edward J. Markey. City officials are fielding questions from local and national news organizations. A public meeting on the topic drew dozens of concerned residents.

“In my eyes, it was only a matter of time that it would become this big of a deal,” said Melissa Welch, a 22-year-old from Taunton who has been off heroin for less than a month. “It really doesn’t surprise me.”

State Police data show that Bristol County, where Taunton is located, recorded 34 fatal overdoses from Nov. 1 to Feb. 25, the highest number State Police recorded in any Massachusetts county. Boston, Worcester, and Springfield overdoses are not included in the statewide count because State Police do not lead death investigations in those cities.

Like much of the state, Taunton is a market for heroin that is cheap and accessible when compared with prescription opiates such as Percocet, which remain relatively expensive and have been made harder for addicts to crush and snort. Police and health workers grimly acknowledge that market forces now favor heroin, but the recent spike in opiate-related fatalities has startled them.

The culprit is believed to be fentanyl, a dangerous narcotic that Bastille and others said is being mixed with heroin to give addicts a much more powerful high. Fentanyl-laced deaths have been confirmed in other Northeastern states, including Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, and many Massachusetts officials believe that the drug has migrated to the Bay State.

Perversely, part of its appeal is its deadly potential, users and others said.

“When you’re a heroin addict, you want the best high you can get; you’ve already crossed the line of caring about your safety,” Welch said. Many addicts, she continued, will think “this dope is obviously so good that it killed somebody. You want to go out and get it.”

Mayor Tom Hoye speculated that fentanyl is responsible for the overdose surge, rather than an increase in heroin use, which he believes has remained stable. But because the city has decided to take on the problem publicly — with community meetings, police advisories on the Internet, and plans for a new health curriculum in the schools — the city’s image is paying a price, the mayor said.

“We decided to talk about it,” Hoye said. “Other cities and towns have not. Taunton is not alone in dealing with this issue. No one wants this in their city or town, but, at the same time, we can’t sit back and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

The mayor and other officials said the city, a transportation hub for Southeastern Massachusetts, is vulnerable to drug trafficking partly because of its location. Interstate 495 runs through Taunton, as do busy state highways such as Routes 24, 44, and 140. Interstate 95 is also nearby.

“Taunton didn’t raise all these addicts,” said Susan Malloch Taylor, whose 27-year-old daughter is a recovering heroin user. “We’re just the perfect location for it. Kids just come from all over the place.”

Drug transactions, in which several hits of heroin can be bought for as little as $25 to $30, often occur quickly and clandestinely in busy outdoor areas, Bastille said. “You can stand in any parking lot and be in and out,” she added. “We’re so easily accessible.”

However furtive the sales might be, their consequences frequently become public. On Sunday afternoon, in another overdose, a man survived after being found in a bathroom near the food court at the Galleria Mall.

Welch said the reports of overdoses in Taunton, one or more nearly every day this year, has become the new normal.

“It’s crazy,” said Welch, who has lost several friends to fatal overdoses. “I would hear about it all the time — ‘So-and-so died’ — and you wouldn’t even have to ask why.”

What has become a flood of overdoses this year first appeared as a trickle. In mid-January, Bastille said, she noticed a few reports of them in the police blotter. Drug use was nothing new in Taunton, but the small spate of overdoses caught her attention.

Bastille spoke with a Taunton detective and then began a little detective work of her own. Those few reports turned into a few more after Bastille, digging for details, discovered that the blotter’s coding for overdoses was not always obvious.

The coding has changed, and so has the worried public conversation throughout this few-frills city. Now, nearly everybody is aware of the problem.

For the family of Jeff Welch, Melissa’s father, the heroin surge has been devastating. There have been at least 15 trips to detox facilities for Melissa, nine halfway houses, and five court-ordered commitments, including time spent at the state prison for women in Framingham because treatment beds were not available elsewhere.

Melissa has stolen from the home, including jewelry from her mother, and sold the items at local pawn shops for a day’s fix. She has sold watches, clothes, and even the sneakers off her feet since first becoming addicted to opiates at age 16.

“The only thing she never sold was her dog,” said Jeff Welch, a 54-year-old superintendent for a general contractor. “A lot of times, I just find myself crying.”

Like Melissa’s father, Susan Malloch Taylor is convinced that talking publicly about the opiate crisis is critical to combatting the problem. She, too, has suffered for years from the withering fallout caused by her daughter’s addiction.

“I was always afraid to open the bathroom door in the morning, because I didn’t know whether I would find her dead or alive,” Taylor said. “I planned her funeral in my head a million times.” Through four years of daily torment, Taylor said, she never gave up trying to wrest her 27-year-old daughter from the brink of the grave.

Her oldest child, one of three siblings, has been clean since June and is engaged to a recovering addict who has been sober for six years. But each day is a question mark, Taylor said, and the memories of the worst days are permanently embedded in her mind’s eye.

“I watched my beautiful girl deteriorate to a scabby-faced, rail-thin, crack-head junkie,” Taylor said. “Knock on wood, we’re OK today.”

Taylor is adamant that police work alone is not going to curb the spread of the heroin market in Taunton. “For every drug dealer they take off the street, there are one, two, 10 more,” she said.

Instead, Taylor argued, much of the work must be shouldered by parents, friends, and neighbors who are not afraid to fight.

“It’s not a secret any more,” Taylor said. “Taunton as a city was blessed with the ability to put its name out there and say we have a problem: Our kids are dying.”