Monday, July 17, 2017
A Small-Town Police Officer’s War on Drugs
(The following was published in the NY Times Sunday Magazine. NH is at the epicenter of the opioid crisis and the nation is taking notice.)
New Hampshire has the second-highest rate of drug overdoses in the country. Eric Adams in Laconia (population 16,000) has been assigned one task: to stop them.
By BENJAMIN RACHLINJULY 12, 2017
Eric Adams is a handsome, clean-shaven man, almost 41, with a booming voice and hair clipped short enough for the military, which once was an ambition of his. After high school, he tried to join the Marines but was turned away because of his asthma. He needed three different inhalers then, plus injections. Today he has outgrown the problem. He is 5-foot-10, weighs 215 pounds and can dead lift 350.
Adams has worked in law enforcement for almost two decades. He began as a guard at the New Hampshire state prison, where he asked to work in maximum security, then left to become a police officer in Tilton and was soon recommended for the Drug Task Force, a statewide operation against narcotics dealers. Adams grew his hair long and arranged undercover buys, a Glock 27 concealed in a holster beneath his jeans. Later he would return wearing a bulletproof vest, surrounded by fellow officers, to kick in the door with his pistol drawn.
Laconia, where Adams works today, is a former mill town in central New Hampshire surrounded by lakes. In midwinter, Laconia is home to 16,000 residents, though in summer that number swells to 30,000. Those are gleaming, sun-dappled days. Then winter falls on New England like a gavel.
A blight in the region is especially acute. Of the 13 states with the highest death rates from drug overdoses, five are in New England. New Hampshire in particular has more per capita overdose deaths than anywhere but West Virginia. In 2012, the state had 163 such deaths, a majority of them (as elsewhere in the country) from heroin and prescription opioids. In 2015, the state had nearly 500 deaths, the most in its history. In Manchester, its largest city, the police seized more than 27,000 grams of heroin that year, up from 1,314 grams a year earlier. In certain neighborhoods, a single dose of heroin can cost less than a six pack of Budweiser. Waiting lists for treatment programs stretch as long as eight weeks.
Those years spent guarding prisoners, and later kicking down doors, changed Adams’s thinking. So many of the drug users he saw had made one bad decision and then became chained to it, Adams realized. Or they had begun on a valid prescription for pain medication, after an injury, and then grew addicted. When refills grew scarce, they turned to alternatives. Many were no longer even using to get high, only to avoid the agony of withdrawal. They were teenaged, middle-aged and elderly; they were students, bankers and grocery clerks. They were businesswomen with six-figure salaries and homeless men with shopping carts. Arresting a person like this did no good, because there was always another to replace him or her — and regardless, any jail sentence had limits. Afterward, Adams saw, everyone landed right back where they started
‘‘We’re not getting anywhere,’’ he told his chief, Christopher Adams (the two men are not related), and his lieutenant. It turned out that they had already reached a similar conclusion. Until recently, Christopher Adams told me, he couldn’t recall ever hearing of a heroin case. ‘‘Now it’s every day,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a majority. Not just in Laconia. It’s all over.’’ He and his lieutenant sat down to consider what their department might do. It seemed that there were three conceivable approaches to a drug problem: prevention, enforcement and treatment. To accomplish all three would mean regarding drug users, and misusers, as not only criminals. They were also customers who were being targeted and sold to; they were also victims who needed medical treatment. To coordinate all those approaches would require a particular sort of officer.
In September 2014, Eric Adams became the first person in New England — to his knowledge, the only person in the country — whose job title is prevention, enforcement and treatment coordinator. ‘‘I never thought I’d be doing something like this,’’ he told me. ‘‘I learned fast.’’ The department printed him new business cards: ‘‘The Laconia Police Department recognizes that substance misuse is a disease,’’ they read. ‘‘We understand you can’t fight this alone.’’ On the reverse, Adams’s cellphone number and email address were listed. He distributed these to every officer on patrol and answered his phone any time it rang, seven days a week. Strangers called him at 3 a.m., and Adams spoke with them for hours.
The department assigned him an unmarked Crown Victoria, and in it he followed the blips and squawks of a police scanner, driving to the scene of any overdose it reported and introducing himself to the victim, as well as any friends or family he could locate. Residents like these often shrank from the police or stiffened defensively. But when Adams told them that they weren’t under arrest, that he had only come to help, they seemed to sag in relief.
People who work with addicts generally agree that this moment, immediately after an overdose, offers the greatest chance to sway an addict, when he or she feels most vulnerable. ‘‘You’re at a crossroads right then and there,’’ a local paramedic told me. If an addict agreed to Adams’s help, Adams drove him to a treatment facility, sat beside him in waiting rooms, ferried his parents or siblings to visit him there or at the jail or hospital. He added the names of everyone he encountered to a spreadsheet, and he kept in touch even with those who relapsed. Were they feeling safe? Attending support meetings? Did they have a job? A place to sleep?
In the nearly three years since, as overdose rates have climbed across New Hampshire, those in Laconia have fallen. In 2014, the year Adams began, the town had 10 opioid fatalities. In 2016, the number was five. Fifty-one of its residents volunteered for treatment last year, up from 46 a year before and 14 a year before that. The county as a whole, Belknap, had fewer opioid-related emergency-room visits than any other New Hampshire county but one. Of the 204 addicts Adams has crossed paths with, 123 of them, or 60 percent, have agreed to keep in touch with him. Adams calls them at least weekly. Ninety-two have entered clinical treatment. Eighty-four, or just over 40 percent of all those he has met, are in recovery, having kept sober for two months or longer. Zero have died.
On most mornings, Adams arrives at his office well before 9 to answer email. By then, his phone is already chiming. ‘‘I thought when I got this position: Monday through Friday, day shifts, weekends off. I’m going to see my kids and wife more,’’ Adams said, laughing. ‘‘That’s not the case.’’ Pinned to the walls of his office, a windowless room on the second floor of the department, are pamphlets and resource guides for homelessness, peer-support groups and addiction hotlines, as well as a dry-erase board listing drug-treatment centers statewide. In December, when I visited one morning, the floor was cluttered with toys for local families in preparation for Christmas: doll sets, wireless headphones, a pillow the color of sorbet.
As soon as he began the job, Adams researched what social-service organizations the region had to offer and drove to their offices to introduce himself. A few employees at places like these knew one another from previous referrals, but many didn’t, so Adams went about acquainting them. At health conferences, he arrived to the quizzical frowns of social workers and realized that, of some 200 attendees, he was the only police officer. A network gradually sprouted around him. One morning in December, his first call was from Daisy Pierce, the director of a nonprofit organization whose doors opened two weeks earlier; Adams is its chairman. Might Adams help her get a teenager into the Farnum Center, a treatment facility in Manchester, an hour south? Adams dialed a pastor he knew, who phoned a recovery coach. ‘‘For the first year and a half, I was the only transportation around here,’’ he told me when he hung up. ‘‘I would drive people down to Farnum all the time.’’
Next, Adams turned to a matter unresolved from the day before: a woman the county prosecutor had phoned about, asking if Adams could find her housing. Until recently, the woman had been staying at a homeless shelter, but that stay had ended and, because she was on probation, with nowhere else to sleep, Adams’s fellow officers had taken her to jail, though they could hold her for only one night. She would be released that day, still with nowhere else to stay. The next 48 hours would be critical, Adams felt. Here was a person who wanted to get sober but for whom the local authorities had little to offer.
From his desk, he dialed a treatment center, then various landlords and nonprofit directors he knew. ‘‘Hi, this is Eric Adams over at the Laconia Police Department. I’m calling to see if you have anything. . . . ’’ Then he tried calling back the county prosecutor, tapping his fingers impatiently as the phone rang. When no one answered, he pulled a cellphone from his pocket and looked through it for numbers to dial on his office phone, while scribbling notes on two different legal pads. A cup from Dunkin’ Donuts sat on his desk, but he hadn’t had time to sip from it. After a half-dozen calls, he hung up the phone and sighed. ‘‘This is the biggest problem in the area,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s housing. There are only a handful of landlords that own so many properties.’’ Adams tried to be up front with landlords, and he didn’t blame them for sometimes rebuffing him, because they had to look out for their other tenants. But it meant limited options for a woman like the one he was trying to help.
He swiveled toward his computer and began scrolling through notes. Finding nothing, he rubbed his eyes with frustration, propped his elbows onto his desk and rested his chin on his hands to think. ‘‘Oh! Let me try — I haven’t talked with her in a while.’’ He dialed another number. ‘‘Hi, this is Eric Adams over at the Laconia Police Department. . . . ’’ A moment later, he hung up. ‘‘All right, this is the last one I can think of.’’ He dialed again. ‘‘I was wondering if you had any rentals available for a female. Oh, really? That’d be great.’’ He recited his email address. ‘‘Thank you!’’
Adams shook his head. ‘‘Not for a couple weeks.’’ He stood, pushing back his chair, and cursed. Out of the office he strode to make a lap around the building to clear his head, then returned and looked at the clock — 9:40 a.m. He had a meeting at 10 at the local branch of the Bank of New Hampshire to help Pierce, the nonprofit director, apply for a new line of credit for their organization. Halfway to the door, he backtracked to pluck the Dunkin’ Donuts cup from his desk and sipped. ‘‘My coffee’s cold.’’
On a glass table in the bank lobby lay that morning’s copy of The Laconia Daily Sun. ‘‘Drug Sweep in Laconia Results in 17 Arrests,’’ its front page read. Headlines like that had become increasingly common, especially as the drugs themselves changed — first to opiates, then to opioids. They weren’t the same thing, Adams had learned. Opiates are derived from nature, and there are only so many, drugs like morphine, heroin and codeine. By contrast, opioids — though the word is now often used as an umbrella term for all these substances — technically means synthetic drugs like Vicodin, Percocet, fentanyl and OxyContin, all of which were invented in a laboratory. This is why detectives sometimes encountered new opioids that were 20, 50, 100 times as potent as heroin. In a lab, you can do nearly anything. A dealer, even if he or she knows the difference, rarely bothers labeling, so a dose of so-called heroin might include fractions of nearly anything — meaning, of course, that the potency might be nearly anything. Overdoses happen not just when a person knowingly ingests a large dose but also when he or she ingests a dose of unknown composition.
‘The thing I had the hardest time learning was you’re not going to save everyone. That was very hard for me to accept.’
After the meeting at the bank, Adams’s phone rang, and he vanished briefly. The call was from a woman whose son was arrested on charges of dealing meth. She wanted an intervention and hoped Adams might help. Steering toward the Belknap County jail, past homes spangled with Christmas lights, Adams admitted that he felt wary. He had already met this young man, who wanted nothing to do with him. Still, Adams would try. He never knew when an addict might begin saying ‘‘yes’’ to him. Sometimes this happened quickly: Adams’s phone would ring, and it was someone he met the previous day. ‘‘I’m exhausted,’’ the person would confess. Others waited a year or longer. All that time, they had hung onto his card. ‘‘I think I’m ready now,’’ they said. Occasionally an addict used similar words even in rebuffing him — ‘‘I don’t think I’m ready yet’’ — a phrase that implicitly acknowledged a problem even as he or she denied one. It was the kind of sign Adams kept on the lookout for. Possibly this moment had come for the young man in jail.
When we arrived, Adams hustled through the drably carpeted lobby, hardly slowing before a receptionist and a guard waved him inside. A half-hour later, he returned, his face tight with frustration, and strode past me to the car without speaking. ‘‘He doesn’t have a problem,’’ he told me. ‘‘That’s what he said. He doesn’t have a problem.’’
Inside, he told me, guards had brought the young man from his cell into a windowed conference room, where he recognized Adams, as Adams predicted. ‘‘You know why I’m here,’’ Adams began gently.
‘‘You’re trying to be nosy,’’ the man replied.
‘‘If you want to think of it that way, that’s fine.’’ Adams glanced at the young man’s file and explained that the man’s mother had called. ‘‘So I wanted to talk to you a little bit. This is an opportunity for you to get some help.’’ The young man went silent. ‘‘I mean, you got arrested,’’ Adams added, gesturing toward the file.
The man told him that he didn’t do the stuff, just sold it. He didn’t need help.
‘‘O.K.,’’ Adams told him, crossing his arms and leaning forward. Was the young man on any weight-loss program, then? ‘‘Because when I saw you before, to now, you’ve lost a lot of weight.’’ He nodded toward the young man, who was twitching uncomfortably in his chair. ‘‘And you’re all over the place, just sitting there.’’
When the man told Adams he was innocent, Adams reminded him that he was always available and slid him another one of his cards. Adams wished him well, then he asked guards to briefly fetch the woman they were holding overnight — the one for whom Adams was searching for housing — to check in and promise that he was trying.
Even as Adams nosed the Crown Vic out of the parking lot, he couldn’t get the episode out of his head. ‘‘Why won’t you just say, ‘I need this’?’’ he asked aloud, thinking of the young man. ‘‘Your life is going this way. You’ve been arrested. You’re homeless. It’s all drug-related.’’ He sighed. ‘‘The thing I had the hardest time learning was you’re not going to save everyone. That was very hard for me to accept.’’ A common sentiment among the police was that officers interacted with just 5 percent or so of the residents they served. In certain communities, that fraction was smaller. Laconia wasn’t a large town. ‘‘You think, mathematically,’’ Adams began, before pausing, ‘‘why can’t I? Why can’t I fix this?’’
For several miles he steered quietly, past muddied snowbanks. ‘‘It bothers me, but I’ve done what I can do right now. I can’t force him to want help.’’ He turned into the lot of the department and slowed into a parking spot.
‘‘Is there such a thing as an addict you have no sympathy for?’’ I wondered.
Adams considered this, letting the engine idle, and dropped his hands into his lap. Eleven seconds passed in silence. ‘‘I don’t think so,’’ he said finally. ‘‘There are reasons they are the way they are.’’
Adams could list, from memory, addicts who had opened their lives to him, had volunteered for treatment, had wept in relief and gratitude. Already I had met two young adults who were newly in recovery and partly credited Adams for the lives they had regained. But those weren’t the names that tormented him.
Inside his office, he noticed two new voice-mail messages. The first was from a woman who read of Adams in the newspaper. ‘‘If you could tell me what to do? I’m more than willing to do whatever I need.’’ Adams scribbled something on a legal pad, then played the second voice mail. The same voice filled the room again, but now it broke into tears. Could Adams please tell her what to do?
Adams jotted another note, then checked his watch. Just past noon. Because he knew the work schedule of the mother of the young man he visited in jail, he knew she would be off soon and expecting his call. ‘‘She’s not going to be happy,’’ he said, mostly to himself. Rubbing his forehead, he sat down and dialed.
In so many towns all across the country, it is difficult to talk about an issue like heroin, not only because there is a stigma or because people worry about sounding impolite, but because everyone calibrates differently, based on neighbors and co-workers they see all day, how much of a problem it is or whether it is a problem at all. There were towns near Laconia — diplomatically, Adams declined to name them — that denied they had any drug crisis, even as the numbers they had showed otherwise. When presented with those numbers, some officials found alternative explanations. Those were residents from other towns who just happened to cross the border, they argued. This reasoning just contributed to the problem, Adams said. Between 2004 and 2013, the number of New Hampshire residents receiving state-funded treatment for heroin addiction climbed by 90 percent. The number receiving treatment for prescription-opiate abuse climbed by 500 percent. But in terms of availability of beds, New Hampshire ranks second to last in New England in access to drug-treatment programs, ahead of only Vermont. The number who still need treatment is probably much higher. In October 2014, New Hampshire became the second-to-last state in the country to begin a prescription-drug-monitoring program, leaving only Missouri without one.
Not everyone saw things Adams’s way. In his office in City Hall, I met Laconia’s mayor, Edward Engler. Engler, who was cautious and businesslike, with slicked hair and a graying goatee, had been mayor for three years, though he had lived in Laconia for almost 17 and owned The Laconia Daily Sun. Over his dress shirt he wore a fleece vest embroidered with the paper’s logo. Engler referred to what was happening in Laconia as ‘‘this so-called heroin epidemic,’’ his tone melodramatic, raising his hands defensively above his head. ‘‘We’re the county seat,’’ Engler told me. ‘‘We’re also the home of the regional hospital. Towns in New Hampshire are extremely close together. I think we tend to get credit for more things than are directly attributable to our residents.’’ Though he thought highly of Eric Adams, he also felt skeptical that heroin deserved to be considered an epidemic, regardless of the statistics. ‘‘When I go to a Rotary Club meeting, I don’t hear people sitting around talking about, ‘Woe is us, everybody’s dying of heroin.’ ’’
Might that be because, in a setting like the Rotary Club, heroin was not a topic of polite conversation?
‘‘There could be something to that,’’ Engler admitted. Still, an overdose death was an overdose death — it would appear in the news that way, and Engler would have heard of it. ‘‘I don’t believe there has been a huge, communitywide reaction to this. There’s not 100 people showing up at City Council meetings saying: ‘You have to do something about this. This is terrible.’ The papers aren’t full of letters to the editor. Not at all. And I think there’s a reason for that. The reason for that is’’ — Engler paused and crossed his arms — ‘‘since we have been in the so-called heroin epidemic in New Hampshire, I don’t believe there has been an instance in the Lakes Region, in Belknap County, where we have had a tragic story involving the son or daughter of someone from a prominent family. All it takes is one, usually. Somebody in Londonderry, some girl who was valedictorian of her class, her dad was a doctor or a lawyer or something like that, overdoses and dies, and suddenly it’s a crisis to everyone in town.’’
That very week, I told Engler, while tagging along with Adams for a meeting at the high school, I’d heard teachers mention a current student, a well-liked senior athlete, a team captain, whose sister had struggled with addiction and who had been open about the experience. Another member of the same graduating class, a girl whose grades ranked her in the top 10, had been walking with a friend in 2012 when a local mother, high while driving to pick up her own child from the middle school, swerved and struck them on the sidewalk. The girl survived. Her friend was killed.
The mayor was unmoved. ‘‘That was oxycodone,’’ Engler said dismissively. ‘‘Here, locally, the heroin epidemic, whatever you want to call it, has not crossed over in any obvious way from the underclass to the middle, middle-upper class.’’
Chadwick Boucher, a former addict and an early client of Eric Adams’s, with his work truck in his father’s yard. Credit Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times
Later that week, another prospective client phoned Adams. ‘‘I’m at wits’ end,’’ the man said. For the woman who needed housing, Adams helped track down a relative, at whose home she could stay until an apartment opened. On Friday evening, two more residents overdosed. Adams intended to visit them. Whether either one would accept Adams’s card, would call him, would enter treatment, would achieve recovery, would some day relapse, Adams couldn’t predict. There were no guarantees in this sort of work.
Early in his tenure, Adams made a presentation to ‘‘some prominent people in the community’’ — he didn’t want to name anyone — and afterward, as much of the room applauded, a man approached to shake Adams’s hand. As he reached out, the man said: ‘‘It’s a really good job you’re doing. I think it’s great. But my opinion is, if they stick a needle in their arm, they should die.’’
‘‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’’ Adams said, startled. ‘‘I’d hope you would feel differently if it was your own family member.’’
But the man shook his head. ‘‘That will never happen.’’
This sort of thing happened all the time when Adams began. Today it happened far less frequently. So many others had grown into Adams’s approach: fellow officers, downtown business owners, the captain at the Belknap County jail. Police officers from around New England and even farther away had phoned or traveled to Laconia to learn what Adams was doing, and whether the model could be replicated. Other towns, independently, had been pressed by the crisis to conceive approaches of their own. Manchester had turned its firehouses into safe stations. Gloucester, across the border in Massachusetts, had a network of community volunteers. A city as large as Philadelphia or Boston could sensibly implement a PET approach too, Adams’s supervisors argued; a community like that would simply need more than one officer, with each assigned to a geographical area. But the shift this required would be profound, asking departments that for so long had thought mainly of enforcement to think differently. In Adams’s daily work, it was unavoidable that certain values competed. A client might divulge a crime to him, and he would be forced to interrupt her to give a Miranda warning. ‘‘If there is a crime, that individual needs to be held accountable,’’ he said. ‘‘But this is where our prosecutor, our judges, come into play.’’ Some attorneys had expressed discomfort with him and had insisted on being present when he met their clients. ‘‘I’m totally fine with that,’’ he said, ‘‘because it’s an opportunity for me to educate the attorney, to let them know what I do, how I do it, what the processes are.’’ In a role so complicated, with so much at stake, clearly it was vital that the right officer held the job.
In an empty conference room on the first floor of the department, I met a young man named Chadwick Boucher, an early client of Adams’s. The two men hugged when they saw each other, and then Adams disappeared upstairs to make calls while Boucher and I spoke. He was 27, though he had the calm demeanor of someone two or three times as old. As early as middle school, Boucher began sneaking his parents’ liquor, partly to fit in with older boys he admired, he told me. Soon he added marijuana. He played hockey then, and played well — invitations came from showcases in Boston and scouts from Division I colleges, including the University of New Hampshire, a national power. Instead, Boucher quit. It was too much pressure. He finished high school and moved in with a friend, who introduced him to OxyContin.
What followed was difficult to align into a neat chronology. He bounced from one friend’s apartment to another, from Oxy to Percocet and finally, when pills grew scarce, to heroin. There was a criminal distribution charge, probation, two treatment programs that he abandoned, feeling as though he didn’t belong. There were short-term jobs tending bar or waiting tables, collecting paychecks before inevitably being fired. Suddenly he was high behind the wheel of his father’s Cutlass — not in the road, but in a driveway — startling awake to the police rapping on his window. Then he was at the Laconia police station, in a room with a plainclothes officer named Eric Adams.
‘‘He opened his arms to me,’’ Boucher recalled. It had felt bizarre, sharing the truth with a cop. But things had changed so quickly. Most of his family had stopped returning his calls, and all his friends had vanished. The only people around him now were strangers who shared his addiction, and he didn’t like or trust them. The difference in meeting someone like Adams was obvious. ‘‘He cares about my well-being,’’ Boucher said. ‘‘I needed that.’’
Adams wanted him to call every day, so Boucher called every day. Then every week. He entered another treatment program, and this time he graduated. He was now nearing a year sober. He owned a business and was caught up on his bills. He lived up the road in an apartment and had friends again, some of whom were in recovery, too. They made a point to talk openly about it, to keep an eye out for one another. Some he referred to Adams. He knew that recovery demanded his full attention, that it probably always would. If he lost anything else in his life — an apartment, a business — he lost that one thing only and could do without it. If he lost his recovery, he would lose everything, all at once.
I asked Boucher how he preferred to be named in this article — by only ‘‘Chad’’? Or would he prefer anonymity? But he shook his head. It was important to him to be honest about who he was. He hoped this would send a message to other addicts and to those who encountered them. ‘‘It’s important that people know there’s a way out.’’ Recovery from addiction was an achievable thing and, having discovered this fact, having discovered Eric Adams, Boucher intended to share it. The news might save lives. He knew it was possible that a business client might discover his unflattering past, that he might lose an account or two. ‘‘I’ve come way too far for that,’’ he said.
Benjamin Rachlin is the author of the forthcoming nonfiction book ‘‘Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption.’’ This is his first article for the magazine.