New Hampshire – Anybody paying attention to the upcoming primary election in New Hampshire will know that one of the biggest concerns for voters is the epidemic of heroin use currently wreaking havoc throughout the Granite State.
Candidates crisscrossing the state ahead of next Tuesday’s primary election have shared personal stories of family members plagued by addiction, promised to ramp up border security in an effort to stem the flow of drugs from Mexico and offered everything from tougher penalties to better rehab treatment as a means to combating the epidemic.
Many law enforcement officials and observes, however, question if the candidates stumping in New Hampshire know the true extent of the problem engulfing the lives of thousands of people across New England.
“The depth of the problem here, I’ve never seen anything like,” a DEA official told Fox News Latino on the condition anonymity. “When you look at these tiny communities in New Hampshire and you see three overdose deaths in a town like Rye, it’s like waking up to 10,000 dead in Manhattan.”
Rye, a small town on the New Hampshire, and neighboring Portsmouth have seen a string of heroin-related deaths in recent months.
DEA officials said that the drastic increase in heroin use – and more recently the use of the much more deadly, synthetic opioid fentanyl – has been caused by the difficulties drug users have in obtaining prescription opioids and Mexican cartels exploiting the new market.
Groups like captured drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel have begun shipping heroin and fentanyl from the U.S. southern border to their associates in New England. In New Hampshire, much of the heroin and fentanyl consumed is distributed by Dominican drug dealers in nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts and brought over state borders by drug users who travel to the working class city to buy.
The street price of the drugs also goes up tremendously the farther one goes way from Lawrence and into New Hampshire. In Lawrence, 10 grams of heroin – known as a finger – retails for $250, but in more remote locations of New Hampshire a finger catch cost up to $400.
“In Vermont and New Hampshire, these local dealers are making it easy for people to get hooked,” Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesperson told FNL. “They stake out methadone clinics where people are recovering and entice them with the drugs.”
Police departments say they are overwhelmed with responding to calls for heroin-related crimes or overdoses, citizens say the use has become so widespread that it has lost its stigma on society and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan dedicated much of her state of the speech this year to the crisis.
"We all know that the heroin and opioid crisis remains the most pressing public health and public safety issue facing our state," Hassan said in her prepared remarks. "Last year alone, more than 400 Granite Staters died from a drug overdose, with the majority of those deaths caused by fentanyl, heroin or another opioid."
With the drug problem on the forefront on most New Hampshire voters’ minds (50 percent said it was a very important issue and 30 percent said it was somewhat important, according a recent Drug Policy Poll), candidates are taking note as they vie for votes in the last few days before the election.
An emotional Ted Cruz recalled the overdose death of his sister during a forum on addiction at in Hooksett, N.H. on Thursday, before saying that stronger border control would keep illegal drugs from entering the country.
“This is not a political rally. This is a rallying cry,” he said, according to the Dallas Morning News. “My Republican friends, and my prolife friends, those of you that are anti-abortion, listen: The life of that addict is just as important as the life of that unborn child, and we need to start taking that very seriously.”
During an earlier stop in the Granite state, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called drug addiction a disease and called for more access to treatment.
“You will not recover from an opiate addiction without proper treatment," he said. "We’ve gotta get more people into treatment and that means removing the stigma.”
While some worry that the issue of drug abuse will fade from the spotlight following the New Hampshire primaries, others say that there are many rural states across the country going through the same type of epidemic as those in New England and many voters are concerned about it.
“This is a national issue so I think it will be a pressing issue on the campaign trail,” Grant Smith, the deputy director of national affairs at Drug Policy Action told FNL. “New Hampshire has been the focal point of the issue. That’s a reflection that New England officials are addressing these issues.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.