Thursday, May 23, 2024
Police patrol Inman Square on Oct. 30, 2005, as reports of drug use flare in Cambridge. (Photo: Ken S. Kotch)

Police patrol Inman Square on Oct. 30, 2005, as reports of drug use flare in Cambridge. (Photo: Ken S. Kotch)

Heroin is here, and it’s cheap. The people of Inman Square say they can see it every day, in the form of needles left in bathrooms, open-air drug sales and loiterers from the nearby methadone clinic, which, like many others in the area, is full to capacity, unable to take one more patient until another leaves.

Residents, addicts and even a security guard at the clinic say they don’t see much of that behavior, but business owners are accurate in their assessment of drug addiction – specifically that of heroin – as a growing trend, law enforcement officials say.

“It is definitely a problem,” said Anthony Pettigrew, spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration at its New England branch headquarters in Boston. “High purity. Low cost.”

A decade ago, heroin from Asia had purity levels in the single digits – sometimes less than 5 percent, he said. The new South American heroin is generally 60 percent pure, some in New Bedford as high as 90. And the price has dropped considerably, often as low as $6 a bag in Cambridge.

It’s cheap and abundant here because, in part, police can’t stop its movement around the country.

“It goes from New York to New Bedford, Lowell, Lawrence and Boston,” Pettigrew said, and then to Cambridge. The Drug Rehabs Web page for Cambridge and U.S. Justice Department say heroin is brought here by Columbian and Dominican gangs. One preferred method is by livery van.

In recent years, state police in Connecticut have stopped these vans – there are several services, including from Lawrence and Jamaica Plain, running express routes back and forth from New York – and seized massive quantities of heroin, cocaine and marijuana. But in some cases they must let the traffickers go, without arrests, because they can’t confirm which passengers brought the drugs seized.

It would be like charging everyone on a Greyhound bus with possession of narcotics just because a bag filled with heroin was found on board, state troopers said.

The livery vans, though much smaller than a Greyhound bus, carry enough passengers – often as many as 13 – to make it difficult to sort out who owned the drugs unless someone talks or is caught with drugs on them, police said.

Owners and drivers of several van companies, including GT Transportation, of Jamaica Plain, and Lawrence United Express Corp., of Lawrence, have said they would cooperate with police and be more conscious of checking in baggage.

But one Lawrence United driver, who would identify himself only as Juan, said drivers don’t check bags because it is “bad for business.”

Certainly vehicles other than livery vans carry drugs, Pettigrew said. Unlike other vehicles on the highway, though, livery vans are fairly easy to spot. In one six-week period from Dec. 6, 2002, to Jan. 15, 2003, Connecticut troopers made six stops of Dominican-owned vans and seized several kilos of heroin and cocaine, in some cases making arrests. A few troopers said they liked to go out “fishing,” because they were catching vans with dope on board just about every time they pulled one over. The troopers averaged one a week when they aggressively pursued the vans.

The stops are less frequent now, records show.

“We have so many livery services,” Pettigrew said. “It’s not like we can search every one.”

Juan recalled once being pulled over three times in one day. That was eight months ago. He hasn’t been stopped for a search since, he said.

“I told them, ‘I think you are stopping me because I am Hispanic,’” Juan said. “People were going five to 10 miles an hour faster than me and they did nothing.”

State Police records confirmed troopers pulled over several vans for violations as minor as “improper lane change” or “driving 72 miles per hour in a posted 65,” then made everyone get out and submit to a search. In that stop, of a Lawrence United van on Jan. 1, 2003, troopers seized two pounds of heroin and a half-pound of cocaine, but charged none of the 14 people on board with any crime.

The driver got a speeding ticket.

Inman Square business owners, meanwhile, expressed concern about the addicts at the nearby methadone clinic at Cambridge Hospital, saying their very presence in the area is bad for business.

Residents say they are not deterred by the dug activity the business owners describe.

“I love Inman Square,” Casey Engles said. And of the methadone clients, “if they are in treatment, that is better than if they are not.”

More: OxyContin plays a role in heroin increase.