NORTH READING – There’s been a significant rise in heroin overdoses in North Reading and the surrounding area over the last several years and the problem is statewide and national, Police Chief Michael Murphy said recently. And the problem isn’t just limited to the suburbs. Just last month Governor Charlie Baker announced a task force to study the state’s heroin and prescription drug abuse crisis.

“Over the last year we have seen a significant impact on the community as far as heroin abuse goes. We have made significant strides in trying to minimize illicit drug use and I think we’re making an impact. But it’s not just a local responsibility, it’s a federal and state responsibility,” he said.

Last year saw a dramatic rise in heroin overdoses in the entire northeast section of the country and North Reading had four fatal overdoses, including an eight-month pregnant female. The woman and her child died, Murphy told the Selectmen. In Middlesex County alone last year, there were 146 drug related deaths; 103 were believed to be related to heroin. In 2013, there were 80 reported overdose deaths and 33 of them were believed to be heroin. This is an increase over 2012, when there were 65 overdose deaths.

So far this year according to the State Police, there have been 64 suspected heroin overdose deaths throughout the state and that doesn’t include Boston, Springfield and Worcester. This immediate area served by Woburn District Court has been hit hard. In addition to the four fatal overdoses in North Reading last year, the police investigated nine non-fatal overdoses.

“Those statistics are what we know. There were a lot of ‘saves’ by the police and fire departments by administering Narcan, (an opioid antagonist) and in a lot of cases in the community, families dealing with heroin addiction are now carrying Narcan as well and sometimes the person is recovered by the time police get there.

Police are doing their best to try to track it but the department is limited in its ability to share the information with the public by privacy laws that prohibit release of medical information.

“These numbers did happen in North Reading and it’s time to bring these numbers back to the forefront. It’s not a North Reading problem. We’re working with anyone who will answer the door when we bang on it to get involved and try to impact the problem where it needs to be impacted. We can’t control the laws, we can’t control the flow of drugs into our community, all we can do is act on the information we have. It’s not just in the northeast, it’s across the whole country, there has to be better education in our schools and there has to be better treatment options.”

From 2004 to 2006, North Reading lost six “local kids” to heroin overdoses and opiate addiction. After that there was a decline at some point but now the problem is back and it’s worse than ever.

“I’ve seen too many families in North Reading affected and we’re back at numbers that are jumping off the charts. This is the greatest crisis we’ve faced in my career and it’s not going to go away, it’s just going to get worse.”

CIT applies for educational grant

Amy Luckiewicz, the town’s Youth Services director, is in the process of applying for a grant on behalf of the Community Impact Team that would award the town $125,000 a year for up to 10 years to educate the community’s school aged kids on the dangers of illicit and prescription drugs, plus alcohol and marijuana. The grant application is being submitted this month. The initial grant is for five years and after that the town can reapply for another five years, so the total value, if approved, could be $1.25 million.

Selectman Michael Prisco said North Reading and other communities need to find a solution. To provide treatment. Narcan is great, he said, but it seems to be used more often and has the effect of skewing the overdose statistics. “How many times have our guys had to go out and administer Narcan?” he asked. “That is a serious statistic. We’re keeping people alive because of Narcan but we need to get them help.”

Murphy said it’s important for the community to know the overdose and abuse problem hasn’t gone away, it’s gotten worse and it’s not limited to North Reading.

“Our first priority is not to arrest people, getting their lives back on track is what matters to us. We see it every day, it is here and it’s gotten worse.”