- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) - One of three heroin overdose victims rushed to the hospital in the span of 24 hours has died, according to Portsmouth police, and law enforcement officials say heroin use statewide is growing at an alarming rate.

“It is an epidemic in no uncertain terms,” Portsmouth police captain Mike Schwartz said Thursday, after confirming the death of a 37-year-old man who died after being hospitalized Wednesday. Schwartz declined to release the man’s name or comment on the conditions of the other two overdose victims.

The man is likely not the first heroin overdose fatality of the new year. Kim Fallon, chief forensic investigator for the state Medical Examiner, said her office is awaiting toxicology results on several deaths in January in which heroin overdoses are suspected.

At least 61 people died of heroin overdoses in 2013, compared with 38 the previous year, Fallon said.

Assistant Attorney General James Vara said Thursday the spike in heroin use over the past few years is showing no sign of tapering off.

“It’s growing at an alarming rate throughout the entire state of New Hampshire and is causing a myriad of crimes,” Vera said. “Burglaries and robberies are all up. It doesn’t seem to be stopping.”

Schwartz said the overdoses and death in Portsmouth prompted him to issue his first ever public warning to heroin users about what may be a highly potent or tainted batch of the drug.

“Our number one priority is keeping people safe and alive,” Schwartz said, noting that three heroin overdoses in the span of a day in a small city like Portsmouth suggests a connection.

Manchester Police Chief David Mara said the relatively cheap price of heroin - a small fraction of the price of prescription painkillers such as oxycodone - is driving demand.

“It’s more abundant, more available and it’s cheaper,” Mara said. Mara said a bag of heroin sells for about $10 and gives high similar to prescription pain opiates that sell for $30 or more per tablet.

Mara said evidence of the spike in heroin use is reflected in the amount of the drug his officers have taken off the streets through arrests and search warrants - 659 grams in 2013 compared to 416 grams in 2012. It’s also reflected in the crime wave spurred by heroin addiction.

“In July alone we had 148 burglaries,” Mara said. “Our robbery rate is up significantly as well.”

U.S. Attorney John Kacavas said federal efforts to crack down on the illicit sale of prescription painkillers have had the unwanted effect of driving up the heroin market.

“When you squeeze one end of the toothpaste tube it’s going to have an impact on the other end of the tube,” Kacavas said.

Attorney General Joseph Foster met Wednesday with law enforcement officials and addiction specialists, including Mara, to discuss the problem.

“We all know in the criminal justice field that you can’t arrest crime,” Mara said. “You have to go to the root cause - addiction.”

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