Skip to content

Shaheen gets look at state forensic lab

More than 270 people have died in New Hampshire this year from drug overdoses, putting the state on track to eclipse its total number of overdose deaths in 2014, according to data shared by the head of the state forensic lab.

During a tour Friday by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, director Tim Pifer said overdose deaths are expected to hit 357 by year's end, 31 more than in 2014. Of those to date, at least 212 have involved opiates including heroin and fentanyl, he said, citing data tabulated last month by the office of the chief medical examiner.

Marijuana still dominates the lab's caseload, Pifer said, but just barely. Heroin and fentanyl, its synthetic counterpart, now comprise 32 percent, only 1 percent less than cannabis, he said.

The update comes as state and federal lawmakers continue scrambling to combat a drug epidemic that has swept the Northeast and parts of the Midwest and elsewhere. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan called this week for $11.1 million in emergency funding to help curb the outbreak, including $2 million to Pifer’s lab, which has a backlog of about 3,800 cases.

Shaheen, a Democrat and former governor, has proposed legislation that would authorize $10 million annually in grants that forensic labs across the country would be eligible to receive.

Pifer said the lab is trying to reduce the backlog by weeding out smaller cases that might not require testing, and will be hiring a seventh criminalist soon. The lab is currently down three positions because of budget cuts.

The lab receives up to 750 new cases each month but is only able to process 450 to 500. Many of those stem from busts that would have once been considered blockbuster in traditional drug capital, Pifer said.

"Ten years ago this would be a career drug bust in New York City," Pifer told Shaheen, pointing to a photo showing several bags of seized heroin. He paused and added, "We’re seeing this on the streets of Manchester and Nashua and areas like Keene."

Fentanyl is often smuggled up from Mexico, according to state law enforcement, but it can also be produced locally, using basic chemistry supplies. As opiate use has spiked across New England, fentanyl has become an increasing concern, as it is more powerful and therefore more dangerous than heroin. It is also impossible to detect on the street, meaning users and dealers typically don’t know what they are exchanging.

About half of the overdose deaths this year resulted from fentanyl alone, and several others included it as a cutting agent.

Pifer said the lab is also beginning to see more cases involving methamphetamine, a drug that can counteract the immediate physical effects of opiates. Police in Concord and some surrounding areas have been seeing the same uptick for months.

The lab’s caseload will likely rise, Pifer noted, as the state continues pressing for more county drug courts, an alternative sentencing model that uses frequent drug tests. He applauded the program, which has shown promise in other states, but said over time it will require more forensic tools and manpower to support.

Shaheen, speaking to reporters after the tour, said the lab is an important piece in an ongoing campaign that needs as much help as it can get.

"What we’re seeing now with heroin and drugs coming into New Hampshire is totally different than what we saw 10 or 20 years ago, and we’ve got to respond to it on all fronts," Shaheen said.

"Treatment doesn’t just involve emergency intervention," she said. "It involves community support, it involves mental treatment." She added: "It took us a long time to realize that alcoholism was a disease. Well, this is a disease."