MANCHESTER, NH – Michael Botticelli made the trip to Manchester Monday from the nation’s Capitol, where he serves as head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He walked along Lake Avenue with an entourage of dignitaries, not far from the intersection of Pine Street. He was one of several invited guests getting a walking tour of Manchester’s drug hot spots.
As drug czars go, Botticelli brings some street cred to the post – he was at one time addicted to alcohol, and has been in recovery himself for more than two decades. Before his confirmation in February, Botticelli served as Director of the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, where his work was recognized for innovation when it comes to prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery services.
Botticelli was flanked by Gov. Maggie Hassan and U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte. Also hovering nearby were Mayor Ted Gatsas, and NH Senators Donna Soucy and Lou D’Allessandro.
The group got an overview from Chief Nick Willard before the walking tour actually began, who said he was honored to have Botticelli’s ear.
Led by Manchester Police Sgt. Brandon Murphy, the group stopped by three known “drug houses,” at 144 Lake Ave. and two at the same building at 178 Central St.
This is an area of the city that has in recent years been infiltrated by drug dealers from New York and New Jersey, said Murphy, bringing with them a more organized system of counter-surveillance, meaning they employ lookouts who are ever vigilant for signs of undercover officers trying to bust up their lucrative drug sales operations.
Willard said it’s telling that there were three known drug houses within the same block. “It speaks to the number of users we have here,” Willard said, explaining that addicts looking for a fix knew that if one of the drug houses was unavailable, the others were a short walk away, so that an uninterrupted flow of drugs was available, 24/7.
Botticelli listened intently, then followed the group as it headed to Lincoln Street, turning the corner to Central Street. Some of the group stepped over dog droppings. Willard observed the need for weeding along the ragged edges of the alley. Graffiti provided a backdrop for local and national press, cameras trained on the high-profile group of lawmakers gathered together to consider the whys and hows of Manchester’s deadly heroin epidemic.
After a brisk circular tour of the hot spot, Botticelli and Hassan took a moment to talk about what, if anything, would come of the high-powered walk through one of the city’s trouble spots.
When asked, “what do we do now?,” Hassan said it was a good question.
“One of the things we know we need is a partnership with Washington,” said Hassan, who said New Hampshire is in desperate need of more options for recovery, and more resources for police departments.
She said Manchester provides a good example of how local police departments can leverage cooperation at the state level. She is hoping Botticelli’s “best practices” experience will trickle down to places like New Hampshire, along with federal dollars.
Botticelli said the goal from Washington, D.C., is to answer the call for help from states like New Hampshire, sooner than later.
“I think it’s critically important for me and my office to get out and talk to folks at the state and local level, to see on the ground what’s happening, what’s working and what’s not working, and how at the federal level our policies and practices and resources can be more helpful,” Botticelli said.
“I think there are some universal truths, no matter where we go. Some of that relates to having good treatment and good [insurance] coverage and a full spectrum of care, from prevention recovery and treatment support,” Botticelli said. “Many of those decisions get made, not only at the federal level, but at the state level, and I know the governor is working on the question of how do we really use Medicaid and other mechanisms to make sure people have good coverage.”
Hassan said New Hampshire is taking an “all hands on deck approach” to the drug crisis, partnering local police departments with state police and federal DEA agents to root out the sources of drug traffic, which is just one facet of a complicated problem, she said.
Not coincidentally, Monday’s tour was a prelude to a bi-partisan field hearing at Saint Anselm College’s NH Institute of Politics, before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The hearing, called “All Hands on Deck: Working Together to End the Trafficking and Abuse of Prescription Opioids, Heroin and Fentanyl,” was a joint effort by both Ayotte and Shaheen.
Several witnesses were attending to give testimony about trafficking and abuse of oxycotin, heroin and fentanyl in New Hampshire, among them: Chief Willard; Doug Griffin, whose daughter, Courtney Griffin, died of a heroin overdose; Heidi Moran, clinical administrator of Southern NH Services; Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowski, U.S. Customs and Border Protection; and John Riley, acting Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
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