WBUR

Opiates On The Islands: Overdoses, Arrests Surge On Martha’s Vineyard

Part 1 of a two-part series

Idyllic Martha’s Vineyard is far from immune to the state’s opiate crisis. Since August, there have been six fatal opiate overdoses on the island.

“That’s a phenomenal rate for a community of 16,000 people, and that’s not to mention the overdoses that haven’t been fatal,” says Charles Silberstein, an addiction specialist and psychiatrist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital in Oak Bluffs.

“We’ve seen overdoses for years, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen this kind of number or frequency,” he adds.

The frequency of arrests for heroin and other opiates has also skyrocketed. In 2012 there was one heroin arrest on the island; last year there were 10, and 16 arrests for prescription opiates.

An Uptick In Crime

Police in Edgartown say fishermen regularly find syringes on this secluded beach. "They’ll buy out on the street, come back here, and hide and shoot up,” says Det. Sgt. Chris Dolby. (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

Police in Edgartown say fishermen regularly find syringes on this secluded beach. “They’ll buy out on the street, come back here, and hide and shoot up,” says Det. Sgt. Chris Dolby. (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

“It’s bad,” says Edgartown Det. Sgt. Chris Dolby. “Once you see people on the Percocet pills and the heroin, it really takes over their lives.”

Dolby shows me around some of the areas police have been keeping an eye on. Right past downtown Edgartown, he turns onto a path that leads to a small secluded beach, where he says fishermen regularly find syringes.

“The shellfishermen come down here every morning and there has been a bunch of needles found on a number of occasions here,” he says. “[It's] very secluded. They’ll buy out on the street, come back here, and hide and shoot up.”

Dolby also blames drug use for an uptick in crime — mainly breaking and entering — by people stealing to support their drug habit.

He drives toward downtown on a street lined with luxury homes.

“It doesn’t get much more affluent than this area,” he says. “Primarily a lot of these are seasonal homes, shut down for the winter. Years ago most of our houses that got broken into would be seasonal homes. Now with the pills, what happens is the main target is the pills. If the house is unoccupied there aren’t going to be any pills there. So the pills have changed our B and E’s to occupied dwellings getting broken into.”

Dolby and other island officials are concerned about what might happen this summer, when the island’s population swells tenfold. Edgartown has 15 full-time police officers, with only one devoted to drug investigations. In the summer, the town hires additional “special officers,” mainly to handle the increased traffic. Even so, law enforcement officials expect resources to be stretched this summer.

“We won’t be getting suntan lotion out,” says Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormick, who is also hiring additional officers for the local jail. “We’re actually doing some training and preparing our staff for what we feel might be a very busy summer.”

McCormick oversees the Dukes County Jail and House of Correction. He says on busy summer holiday weekends, as many as 60 people are locked up. An oft-repeated saying, according to one probation officer, is: “Come to the Vineyard on vacation, leave on probation.”

Maj. Sterling Bishop, deputy superintendent at the jail, says the tourist season brings a different mindset to the island.

“The summer here is a totally different beast,” he says. “People come out and it’s all about making money, whether it’s selling opiates or selling T-shirts. It’s all about the fast buck.”

Price A Big Challenge

The Dukes County Jail and House of Correction, in Edgartown (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

The Dukes County Jail and House of Correction, in Edgartown (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

I’m looking at what from a distance looks like just another historic home in a peaceful neighborhood in downtown Edgartown: white pillars on the front porch, shuttered windows and a landscaped yard. But about two dozen inmates are serving sentences here, and 85 percent of them are in jail for crimes related to opiate use.

Benjamin Fogg, 31, of Edgartown, was released from jail last month, after being incarcerated for 16 months. His drug use started when he was prescribed painkillers for an injury and became addicted.

“When I first started using I had a bad injury, so I started with Oxycontin,” he says. “The price of them out here is so expensive and you get introduced to heroin, and that’s what you stick with.”

Fogg, and law enforcement officials, say price is a big challenge. Drug dealers often come by ferry for the day and sell heroin for double — sometimes triple — the price they can get on the mainland. And with the summer vacation party atmosphere, it’s prevalent.

I ask Fogg how long it would take him to get heroin on the island. “Not even having a cellphone or a dollar in my pocket, probably 15-20 minutes,” he replies.

Fogg says he’s seen enough devastation from heroin.

“People I thought would never use it, friends of mine, I can name four of them who passed away recently,” he says. “I consider myself lucky to be alive. It’s pretty scary.”

Another challenge for Martha’s Vineyard in dealing with the opiate epidemic is the lack of treatment on the island. There is neither a detox stabilization nor residential treatment facility, so many people have to go off the island for treatment. Fogg says that’s one of the reasons why he’s leaving — just as thousands of people are arriving for the summer season.

Correction: An earlier version of this Web report misattributed a quotation to Charles Silberstein; it was Edgartown Det. Sgt. Chris Dolby who said the line. We regret the error.

Part 2, on drug use on Nantucket, comes tomorrow (Wednesday).

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  • fun bobby

    Martha’s vineyard jail?

  • fun bobby

    The Dukes County Jail and House of Correction, in Edgartown (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

    I’m looking at what from a distance looks like just another historic home in a peaceful neighborhood in downtown Edgartown: white pillars on the front porch, shuttered windows and a landscaped yard. But about two dozen inmates are serving sentences here, and 85 percent of them are in jail for crimes related to opiate use.
    that’s got to be doing hard time.

  • fun bobby

    I wonder if it has anything to do with that sketchy character seen cycling around the island

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