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Trouble In Paradise: Opiate Use Spikes On Martha's Vineyard

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Underneath the charm of Martha's Vineyard's picturesque beaches, peaceful woods and luxury homes is a problem: Since August, there have been six overdose deaths 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. "We've had overdoses for years, but I don't think we've ever seen this kind of number or frequency."

The frequency of arrests for heroin and other opioids has also increased in this leafy community. There was one heroin arrest on the island in 2012; last year there were 10. Also in 2012, there were 13 arrests for prescription painkillers; last year there were 16.

"It's bad. Once you see people on the Percocet pills or the heroin, it really takes over their lives," says Detective Sgt. Chris Dolby of the Edgartown Police Department.

There are some areas on the island that police have been keeping an eye on, Dolby says, including a secluded beach where he says fishermen regularly find syringes.

"The shell fishermen come down here every morning, and there has been a bunch of needles found on a number of occasions here. Very secluded," he says. "They'll buy out on the street, come back here and hide and shoot up."

Dolby also blames drugs for an uptick in crime. House break-ins by thieves looking for pills have increased, he says. More police and jail officers are hired every summer for the high season, but Dolby and others expect that resources will be stretched this year.

Maj. Sterling Bishop, deputy superintendent at the local jail, says the busy season brings out a certain mindset.

"The summer here is a totally different beast. People come out, and it's all about making money. Whether its opiates or selling T-shirts or selling whatever, it's all about the fast buck," Bishop says.

Those struggling with drugs say that atmosphere helps fuel the cycle of addiction. Of the two-dozen inmates at the Martha's Vineyard jail, 85 percent are there for crimes related to opioid use.

Benjamin Fogg, 31, of Edgartown, Mass., spoke about the problem as he was being released from the jail on a drug-related crime. "I've been incarcerated for 16 months now," he says.

Part of the issue, Fogg says, is economics. He says dealers know they can sell heroin on the island for double — sometimes triple — the price they can get on the mainland.

If he wanted to, he says, it wouldn't take him long to find heroin. "Not even having a cellphone or a dollar in my pocket, probably 15 to 20 minutes."

Business leaders maintain that the opioid problem has not changed the island. Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, says it's still a safe, idyllic place.

"We are a microcosm of the world, so whatever is happening in the world is happening on Martha's Vineyard. But the community works very hard to create a sense of 'eyes wide open,' " Gardella says. "Neighbors will report things, nobody looks the other way, and the businesspeople I've talked to have a zero tolerance."

Business people, she says, have had to fire workers or refer employees to addiction treatment.

But that can be a challenge. There is no detox stabilization facility on Martha's Vineyard, so those most in need of help often have to leave paradise to get it.

Copyright 2014 WBUR. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

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