An addict's lifeline: New Hampshire town's surprising warrior against heroin

DEA: Heroin 'epidemic' creeping aross U.S.
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Story highlights

  • Laconia, New Hampshire, is looking to use community policing to tackle growing heroin epidemic
  • In 2015, 78 of the 110 people reached started treatment
  • Goal is to trade cuffs for cell phone as one tactic to help addicts break cycle

Laconia, New Hampshire (CNN)Eric Adams' phone rings. On the other end is a 36-year-old man, a daily heroin abuser who is finally accepting he's on a "path of destruction" and now desperately wants help.

This phone call has been months in the making. The addict's mother has been pushing for him to call Adams and seek treatment.
But for weeks and weeks, the addict ignored the advice of his mother -- and worse; he has been using her money to fund his daily high. That is until the day he hits rock bottom. He awakes after a night of sleeping on the street and makes that call.
    Adams gets an address and drives to meet him.
    They sit in Adams' car. The addict's face is gray, his body and soul exhausted.
    He is dope sick and having withdrawals. "[He] ends up opening the door and throwing up," Adams says. "We talked for almost two hours."
    That call turned things around. The man has been sober for a year -- a success story in a quaint New England town now struggling to fight a growing heroin problem.
    Eric Adams' focus is to try not to lock heroin addicts up, but to get them the help they desperately need.
    Adams is on the front lines. He's not a drug counselor, and he doesn't own a rehab clinic. He's a police officer who gave up undercover narcotics operations to work for the Laconia Police Department as a prevention and treatment coordinator.
    His job is not to lock people up but to get them the help they desperately need. His phone number and compassion are as important as any other tool in this town to break the drug's relentless pull on the people who live here.
    Laconia Police launched the program in 2015. In its first year, Adams says he made contact with 110 people. Seventy-eight started treatment, and 36 have been clean for more than 60 days.

    'You could almost see the light bulb just click on'

    Every day, Adams, 38, listens to his radio scanner and quickly heads to the scene of reported drug overdoses. Timing is everything, and engaging with the family and victim at the moment of crisis is critical, he says.
    "You want to get them at one of their most vulnerable points," he explains, "when they actually have that sense, 'Wow, you know what? I almost died. I can't do this anymore.' "
    Adams offers support and treatment options, a task he acknowledges is "monumental" for someone in the grips of addiction, especially when they've started dealing to sustain their habit. Laconia Police believe it's a two-for-one: Eliminate the addiction, and you eliminate a dealer as well.
    Heroin seized from New Hampshire streets are tested for purity.
    "If you can slow demand, then you're helping out your community as a whole" says Adam.
    Looking around at the colorful Victorian homes and the breathtaking lake, it's hard to grasp the reality that heroin use is a major problem here. About 20,000 people live here year-round, a number that swells to 100,000 during the summer.
    "Most people think of an addict as you know, skid row, or homeless living on the street," Adams says. But "it could be your neighbor. It could be one of your best friends, you don't know. They're living in silence."
    That sense of small-town community shows in Adams' approach. The people he interacts with are his "clients." And the town's drug court is referred to, optimistically, as "recovery court."
    His clients come from all walks of life and range in age from teenagers to those in their 60s. They include business people, health care professionals and lawyers. The Congregational church in the center of town runs 25 weekly Heroin/Narcotics Anonymous meetings and is thinking of adding more.
    Many of those using heroin began after getting hooked on prescription painkillers. New Hampshire has one of the highest numbers of long-term, high-dose prescription rates in the nation. From narcotics such as Oxycontin and Percocet, Adams says, people transition to heroin because it is cheaper and more potent.
    "You have someone looking to get a pill because their prescription ran out, but the dealer says, 'I don't have any pills but I have this [heroin], so try this,'" Adams says. In some cases, dealers recruit addicts, persuading them to sell drugs in exchange for a hit. Those are the ones Adams is focused on reaching, but persuading them to get off heroin is not easy.
    Adams remembers one man in town who overdosed multiple times and each time rejected treatment. He was ultimately arrested for possession and Adams finally sat with him face-to-face. But it wasn't in a jail cell, an interrogation room or about the charge. They just talked.
    "You could almost see the light bulb just click on and it was ... like, 'I'm ready.' In some ways the arrest changed his life," Adams says.
    The community-based, balanced approach to policing has caught the eye of nearby police departments. An officer from nearby Salem, New Hampshire, met with Adams the day of CNN's visit to see whether similar methods can be used in his small town, where this kind of program seems to work best. Adams believes if you cut down demand in these small towns enough, the dealers will be forced to go elsewhere.

    'Like shoveling sand against the tide'

    The heroin problem in the "Live Free or Die" state has made national headlines with nearly every 2016 presidential contender forced to talk about it. But New Hampshire has been wrestling with the problem for the past five years.
    In Manchester, the largest city in the state and a half hour's drive from Laconia, the surge in demand is obvious. In 2010, Manchester police seized only 200 grams of heroin. In 2015, that number grew to 27,000 grams, enough to supply 891,000 individual doses.
    The state's police forensic lab takes in 750 new cases every month, 200 more than they can physically test. Court dates are postponed as prosecutors wait for results.
    The New Hampshire State Police Lab is completely backed up because of increase of drug cases.
    There are so many cases that, even without new ones, it would still take the lab seven months to get through the 3,600 cases, according to Tim Pifer, the New Hampshire State Police Lab's director. State and local officials recently testified on Capitol Hill asking for more federal funding to build bigger labs and hire more people.
    "It is literally like shoveling sand against the tide," Pifer said. "We take in far more than we can put out each month."

    Cutting off the supply

    While smaller cities such as Laconia are turning to a more holistic community style of policing to attack the heroin crisis problem, larger cities such as Manchester (population 110,400 in 2014 estimate) must take a more aggressive approach, taking their fight to the dealers.
    At 5 a.m. on a Thursday, SWAT teams silently move into position, targeting two homes. Surveillance teams have been monitoring activity and believe those inside are dealing drugs, possibly heroin.
    Manchester, New Hampshire cops carry out a raid to target low-level street dealers.
    Officers wear more than 50 pounds of ballistic gear and are heavily armed as they break down the doors with battering rams. Nonlethal stun grenades are tossed into the room to startle and disorient two suspected drug dealers who are quickly taken into custody
    Lt. Brian O'Keefe, a spokesman for Manchester Police, says the department is conducting more quick and aggressive operations such as these that target low-level street dealers.
    "We're going after the low-hanging fruit in the attempt and hopes that ... the more we knock them off the tree, the less likely it is that the big guys are going to want to stay here," O'Keefe says.
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