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With Mount Monadnock in the background, people attend a reading of the names of the Sept. 11 victims at the Cathedral of the Pines in Rindge on Saturday, the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks. The annual event is organized by Remember to Remember September 11.

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Local treatment providers say meth use is on the rise in the area
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Michael Wittier had been using drugs daily since he was 13.

It started with a little marijuana. But over the years, the Nashua resident started experimenting, trying out drugs like ecstasy and cocaine.

“And then it was meth,” the 29-year-old said. “It was nowhere, and then all of a sudden it was [expletive] everywhere.”

He started out selling meth for some extra cash, but it wasn’t long until Wittier was sampling his own product.

“Once you try it, it’s up and running. It’s like you keep doing it because you never think you’re high enough, but at the same time, you’re so high you’re in psychosis,” he said.

And Wittier, who used meth for three years until May, isn’t alone. Over the past year, local substance-use treatment providers have seen a sharp increase in methamphetamine use among their clientele, mainly because of how widely available it’s become in recent years and how cheap it is.

At Live Free Recovery Services — which has locations in Keene and Manchester — the number of clients using meth as their primary substance has gone up about 30 percent in the past year, according to CEO Ryan Gagne.

Similarly, The Doorway in Keene has seen the use of two stimulants, meth and cocaine, creep up recently.

A few years ago, clients using stimulants made up about 3 percent of the Doorway’s clientele, according to Executive Director Nelson Hayden. Just last month, that number has tripled.

There’s also been an uptick in “poly use,” when someone takes two drugs — typically an opioid and stimulant — in tandem. At Live Free, Gagne said that’s increased about 20 percent in the past year.

Often, meth is being paired with fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that has been the leading cause of fatal overdoses in New Hampshire and beyond for years.

In 2020, meth was involved in 59 deaths, according to data from the N.H. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Forty-four of those deaths involved meth and an opioid, the data show.

As of Aug. 12, 14 of the 19 deaths involving meth statewide in 2021 involved meth with an opioid.

Wittier said he often used meth with fentanyl or heroin to “level each other out.”

“It got to the point that I got so up that I thought I was going to die, so I had to do a little down to level out my heart rate,” he said. “So it started getting so bad that I had to use them, like, to level each other to keep myself alive.”

While meth certainly isn’t a new drug, its usage paled in comparison to heroin amid the continuing opioid epidemic until recently. In 2012, for example, only one Granite Stater’s death involved meth, according to data from the N.H. Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

But by 2019, that number had increased to 52, and has continued to rise.

Part of the reason for this shift in use is the market, which has moved away from heroin and has doubled down on fentanyl and stimulants in recent years.

“It was weird. It was so fast,” Wittier said.

Because of the dangers associated with fentanyl, those with substance-use disorders steered clear of it when it first came on the scene, typically only using it if it was unknowingly cut into their drugs, area treatment providers said. But now, that fear has subsided.

“This idea of going from [a non-synthetic] product like heroin, going to this fentanyl, that is manufactured, it just kind of opened the door to these manufactured other products,” said Sam Lake, executive director of the Keene Serenity Center. “ … People are like, ‘Well, fentanyl didn’t kill me, so I guess meth won’t kill me either’.”

There’s danger in using any illicit drugs, but people using opioids have more treatment options, such as medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which uses drugs like buprenorphine and methadone to wean users off the opioid and help with withdrawal symptoms.

And if someone overdoses on an opioid, people can administer Narcan, a widely available emergency treatment used to reverse the effects.

“But with meth, there isn’t a Narcan. There isn’t a quick change. There is the risk of ... a heart attack-type death, but most people aren’t dying,” Hayden, of The Doorway, said. “They’re just, when you’re up three, four, five days straight, you are losing all perception of reality.”

Someone using meth may experience a temporary sense of heightened euphoria, alertness and energy because the stimulant increases the brain’s dopamine levels.

Meth use, over time, not only changes how the brain works but also speeds up the body’s systems to dangerous — sometimes lethal — levels, such as increasing blood pressure, as well as heart and respiratory rates.

People using the stimulant repeatedly may also experience anxiety, paranoia, aggression, hallucinations and dramatic mood shifts.

This is what happened to Wittier, who is now four months sober after receiving treatment for meth and heroin use at Live Free in Keene in May.

“There was a couple of times where I locked myself in my truck. I almost shot my neighbor with my gun because I was hallucinating,” he recalled. “ ... Eventually, it started getting me physically too. You start waking up with wounds on your skin, and you have no idea how they got there.”

Treatment for meth and other stimulants like cocaine often involves a 28-day detox, followed by intensive outpatient treatment and then moving into a sober living home — spanning normally about two years. Comparatively, treatment for opioids is usually six months to one year.

It can also be more difficult to get someone who’s addicted to meth into treatment, providers said.

“When my patients choose to leave against clinical advice, it is most often because of meth,” said Emily Wilkins, clinical director of N.H. services for Phoenix House New England.

Wilkins said the cravings are much more intense when withdrawing from meth because there isn’t medication they can take to help. And with the psychosis that accompanies meth use, it can be much harder to get someone to stay in — or even seek out — treatment.

“I’ve never seen so many psychotic symptoms as I have seen in the last year,” she said.

If meth use continues to increase, local substance-use providers say it’ll become even harder to tackle than opioid use.

Wittier said educating the public on meth use is a good start.

“It’s one of those things I want people to know. People who are using meth, I’m not going to say everybody, but chances are there’s a lot of pain and they need to understand that,” he said. “Chances are those people really need help.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Cheshire County residents can visit The Doorway at 24 Railroad St. in Keene Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Support is also available through the state’s 24/7 hotline at 211.

Discussions on how to police the police hit snag on proposed panel’s investigatory powers

When Julian Jefferson finally called the police that night, it wasn’t to report a crime.

Late in the evening in winter 2010, Jefferson was walking home in Concord, making a familiar trip from the University of New Hampshire law school back to his house.

A police cruiser passed by, stopped and flashed its floodlights. Jefferson, who is Black, froze. The cruiser lights flashed a second time. After a pause, the officer drove off.

Jefferson, then a third-year law student, picked up the phone once home to call the department. He wanted an explanation; he felt he had been targeted for his race.

The sergeant who picked up said a burglary had taken place that night. Jefferson had been stopped, even though he didn’t fit the description of the suspect. The phone call ended there, with no indication that any officer would be investigated for misconduct.

Ten years later, Jefferson, now a public defender and adjunct professor at the law school, says the story contains a lesson. Police departments don’t always investigate their own officers, and citizens don’t always trust that they will. The effect is that some citizens don’t feel they can report the misconduct at all, Jefferson argued Thursday to a panel of lawmakers, police officers, and judicial officials.

“I had enough courage in me to call the Concord Police Department myself, which I suspect a lot of people might not,” he said. “But then I’m stuck at that point. Because I don’t know if that sergeant ever had a conversation” with the officer.

This month, Jefferson is part of a group of policymakers seeking a new approach. Lawmakers and judicial advocates are meeting this fall to explore the creation of a state entity that could field complaints from citizens concerned about actions taken by their local police department, and carry out its own investigations.

But just two meetings into its formation, those on the commission have hit major disagreements over how — and whether — that watchdog should operate.

Some reform proponents are pressing the commission to follow the lead of the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency (LEACT), the group of stakeholders — from police to civil rights advocates — that met through 2020 to recommend ways to overhaul police laws. That commission, created by Gov. Chris Sununu in the wake of a string of police-involved killings of Black Americans, recommended the creation of a separate watchdog agency.

“Internal investigation is not sufficient for public trust,” Jefferson said. “We need to have other agencies.”

But others — including one key Republican lawmaker — are concerned about giving a statewide entity investigatory powers over local police departments.

“To me it kind of looks like double jeopardy: to be tried twice for the same thing,” said Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican and the chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “And I don’t think we want to go into that.”

Instead, those skeptics say they’d favor the creation of an agency that oversees existing internal investigations, rather than creating new ones.

In its 153-page report, released October 2020, the LEACT commission recommended that lawmakers create “a single, neutral, and independent statewide entity to receive complaints alleging misconduct regarding all sworn and elected law enforcement officers.”

This February, a group of stakeholders, including the Attorney General’s Office, law enforcement, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, released a proposal on how to do so.

The proposal was to create the Office of Law Enforcement Conduct, which could take in grievances about individual police officers or departments, investigate the grievances, hold hearings, and issue a public report on their findings.

The office would be staffed by a committee of 21 members, half of whom would be law enforcement, nominated by a range of officials, including the Attorney General’s Office, the New Hampshire Supreme Court, the New Hampshire Public Defender, and others.

The committee would have subpoena power within its hearings and be allowed to file complaints against officers with the Police Standards and Training Council. But lawmakers did not pass the proposal into law this year, instead creating a commission to study it as part of the budget trailer bill. Now, members of that commission are at odds over how the watchdog should operate.

Supporters said the independent institution could restore trust in the police.

Joseph Lascaze, the “smart justice organizer” at the ACLU of New Hampshire and a member of the commission, referred to cases in which complainants have struggled to get access to files that would indicate that a police department is investigating their claims seriously. An independent entity with investigatory power would speed up the process, he said.

“This is not to shame New Hampshire law enforcement,” Lascaze said. “This is just solely to have transparency and accountability.”

Carson, however, has reservations. New Hampshire’s police departments already have their own internal policies to investigate complaints and instances of alleged malpractice, Carson noted. Creating a new state agency to do the same work could violate local control, she argued.

“Are we going to have this office step in and do the jobs of police chiefs?” she said. “Is that what people were looking for?”

“This office is going to do their own investigations,” she continued. “Are chiefs going to be allowed to follow their policies in their departments about doing investigations into complaints? Which one is going to trump the other?”

Eddie Edwards, the assistant commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Safety and a former Salem police chief, agreed. The confusion created by a statewide entity that might produce a contrary conclusion would only diminish support for the police in the state, he warned.

“I think it’s going to have a reverse effect on the general public,” he said. “… You could have different outcomes across the state. That is going to erode public trust. It won’t accomplish the mission.”

But to Jefferson, a loss in trust is what could spur better policing.

“That’s kind of the whole point of creating this independent entity,” he said. “With the internal investigations, police are policing themselves. We’re making a value judgment that we need to have a separate entity.”

On Thursday, Attorney General John Formella — whose office has been at the center of many of the recommendations and efforts around the LEACT commission — remained neutral. But he noted that any hypothetical oversight entity would have to be carefully crafted.

“I think this is a tricky balance between maintaining local control but also recognizing complaints regarding officer misconduct,” Formella said.

The commission has until Nov. 1 to file a report indicating its recommendations. Lawmakers are set to reconvene on Sept. 16 to continue discussing the plan, and to talk about how to incorporate body camera footage into the proposed oversight board.

Until then, Formella gave the commission a telling assignment: “I would suggest that … everyone takes the time to think about whether the concepts in this draft could be accomplished in a different way.”

This story originally appeared in the N.H. Bulletin.

Soren Frantz / Sentinel Staff

Members of the American Legion Chapter 373 in Baldwinville, Mass., were among those who came to a reading of the names of the Sept. 11 victims at the Cathedral of the Pines in Rindge on Saturday, the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks.

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School choice program sees strong signup, education commissioner tells local GOP
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A couple of weeks after New Hampshire’s school voucher program went into effect, at least a thousand Granite State children have been signed up for the program, Education Commission Frank Edelblut said over the weekend.

Edelblut was in Keene to address the Cheshire County Republican Committee at its regular meeting, held Saturday morning at the former county courthouse. The commissioner pushed back against some of the criticism of the state’s controversial school choice program, which passed earlier this year and took effect in late August, and explained how it works.

“You are on the right side of history with regard to educational choice,” Edelblut told Saturday’s crowd. “The design of Education Freedom Accounts is to help students for whom the current system is not meeting their needs.”

On Saturday, Edelblut said that the number of people to sign up for the program was about 1,000 and continuing to increase. The program, which is open to families with an income less than 300 times the federal poverty limit, is being administered by a nonprofit called the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which will receive a fee up to 10 percent annually on each account.

School choice programs, which aim to give families more control over where their children go to school, have been a hot-button issue, with opponents arguing that they divert funds away from public schools and that taxpayer money is being used for private, including religious, schools. In New Hampshire, property taxpayers shoulder a heavy financial burden when it comes to funding their local school districts, and residents have long called for the state to provide more education funding.

But according to Edelblut, the school choice program would save districts money over time. He told those at Saturday’s meeting that it costs $20,000 to educate a student in New Hampshire public schools, and when a student signs up for the program, $5,000 goes to the account, minus the administration fee, while the other $15,000 stays with the school district.

“They’re not educating the child, and they got the $15,000,” he told the audience on Saturday. “So all of a sudden, you’ve got more money for the kids that are in the district. You also have the opportunity, if you’re not educating that kid, maybe you can find some cost reductions over some time, and eliminate and save the taxpayers some money in the long run.”

Following the meeting, Edelblut told The Sentinel that for the first year of a student’s enrollment in the program, the $5,000 for the account would also be paid to the school district, so the district’s payment from the state would still total $20,000. In the second year, it would decline by half, and the third year to 25 percent. After that the district would not receive any percentage of the $5,000.

Earlier this month, Edelblut told WMUR that the state was preparing to accommodate between 1,000 and 1,500 accounts. However, this number is far higher than the originally anticipated, which has stoked concerns from opponents of the programs.

According to the New Hampshire Bulletin, Democrats have expressed interest in lowering the income cap, with Rep. David Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat, saying he planned to put forth legislation this month to limit the number of awards that can be issued annually.

“[Gov. Chris] Sununu’s school voucher scheme takes money from our public schools and sends it to private, religious, and home schools,” Luneau said in a statement. “Now we are being told that millions more than expected in taxpayer dollars will be siphoned off for these vouchers. We need to put a cap on program costs based on what was presented to the Legislature by the commissioner, so that New Hampshire can plan appropriately.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have said that the cap at 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline ($79,500 annually for a family of four) was meant to give the program a cautious start, and that the idea of raising or eliminating the cap is being explored, according to the Bulletin.

Members of the crowd at Saturday’s Republican committee meeting lauded the program, with several expressing frustration with their local school districts, particularly with remote learning during the pandemic. Others voiced concerns about critical race theory — an academic framework that approaches the study of the United States through a lens of race and power and holds that systemic racism is a part of American institutions.

The theory has been decried by Republicans, who believe that the theory causes more divisiveness in an already-divided nation. The state budget trailer bill approved earlier this year includes a prohibition on teaching so-called “divisive concepts,” which has stirred up confusion about what subjects are allowed to be discussed in schools.

Following Edelblut’s address, the local GOP committee held its regular business meeting, during which members approved a resolution calling on President Joe Biden to resign or be removed from office due to his handling of the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. In a news release issued after the meeting, Chairman Richard Merkt questioned whether Biden was up to the task of being president.

“It is one thing when Joe Biden thoughtlessly careens from one policy blunder to the next, but in this case, his carelessness wasted the lives of 13 young Americans,” Merkt wrote. “As a simple matter of military and public safety, America cannot afford to have Biden remain in office.”

A more diverse Boston prepares for a true changing of the guard

BOSTON — For two centuries, this historic city has elected only white men as mayor. This fall, its history will be upended.

Bostonians will go to the polls Tuesday in what is locally called a preliminary election, winnowing more than half a dozen mayoral candidates down to two for the general contest in November. All the leading candidates are women of color.

The coming milestone — one already marked by nearly every other major U.S. city — follows a remarkable decade of change and growth here. Residents of color now compose a majority of the population, with Black and Hispanic communities each representing about 19 percent and Asian residents about 11 percent.

Many community leaders see Boston’s politics finally catching up with its demographics and moving it further beyond other aspects of its past — particularly, in the 1970s and 1980s, the city being the center of some of the country’s nastiest battles over the desegregation of schools and public housing.

“Every mayor since John Phillips in 1822 has been a White man,” said Michael Curry, a former president of the Boston NAACP. “You’ve left talent on the table.”

The shift is already reflected in other prominent positions.

In 2018, Ayanna Pressley unseated incumbent Michael Capuano in the Democratic primary in the state’s 7th Congressional District, which includes much of Boston. Her victory in the general election only added to her distinctions: she is the first Black woman to win a seat on the city council and the first woman of color to represent the commonwealth in Congress.

That same year, Rachel Rollins became the first Black woman to be elected district attorney not only in Suffolk County, which includes Boston, but in the state. President Joe Biden recently nominated her to be U.S. attorney for Massachusetts.

Erin O’Brien, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston and an expert on local politics, expects the city to head in a new direction under its next mayor.

“We know when women of color and people of color get elected, the policy agenda changes,” she said.

The race, wide open because of Martin Walsh’s departure in March to be Biden’s labor secretary, has inspired a mix of optimism and realism.

Boston continues to struggle with issues of stratospheric housing costs, low-performing public schools, and vast racial gulfs in health, life expectancy and households’ net worth.

“It’s critical that the faces change, but to me, it’s not only about the faces changing,” said former city councilor Tito Jackson, who is Black. “We need true advocacy, people who will take on the real fight.”

Three polls this summer showed Councilor Michelle Wu — the first Asian American woman to serve on that body — leading with between 25 percent and 30 percent support. Acting Mayor Kim Janey and Councilor Andrea Campbell, who are Black, and Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, whose heritage is of Arab and Polish descent, were in tight contention for second place. Former city economic development director John Barros, who is Black, hung in the low single digits.

The last open mayoral race was in 2013 when the City Council was mostly White and male. That year’s elections saw a record number of candidates of color and ultimately ushered in newcomers such as Wu and Jackson, even as the mayoral race came down to two men of Irish descent — Walsh and then-councilor John R. Connolly.

“For me, that was the transformative moment,” said Lisa Cook, who served in the administrations of mayor Thomas Menino and governor Deval Patrick. “That [was] when young professionals who may have been raised in Boston and left, came back equipped with great education and experience and were ready to move into political leadership.”

With each successive election, the council has only grown more diverse by gender and race. Yet no woman or candidate of color has come close to claiming the city’s top job — until now.

Despite excitement over the prospect, many people stress that turning the outcome into concrete improvements for everyday lives will require major, sustained effort.

Lori Smith Britton was born and raised in Dorchester, the city’s largest neighborhood. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1992, she returned to Boston to build a career working in nonprofits and fundraising for them.

Standing recently along Blue Hill Avenue, a major thoroughfare that runs south through several struggling neighborhoods, Britton said change still isn’t being felt on the ground.

“The power shift hasn’t yet happened. I don’t perceive it,” she explained. “When I look around the community, it doesn’t feel like people have economic power. It doesn’t feel like people have political power.”

Boston saw a renaissance over the last three decades; today, it boasts an expanding skyline, booming downtown and vibrant seaport. The population has rebounded, too, to about 675,000 from a low of about 563,000 in 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Though White residents only make up about 45 percent of the city these days, it is primarily residents of color who are being priced out of neighborhoods as gentrification drives up rents and home prices.

U.S. Rep. Pressley said that leaders who understand the concerns and fears there — having grown up in different neighborhoods or as children in struggling families — are the ones who will ask questions and push for solutions that may not occur to others.

“Whoever becomes the next mayor will bring their identity and their lived experience,” she noted.

And the promise of representation is the promise that communities that suffered in the past will be heard in the future, according to the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, who in the 1990s spearheaded an initiative involving neighborhood youth, clergy and police that resulted in a significant drop in violent crime.

“For a lot of folks, they are looking for a leader who is going to be clear eyed in where the city has come from and where it has to go,” Brown said.

Jim Kuchinsky-Warren, an undecided voter who grew up in the predominantly Irish American neighborhood of South Boston, sees a mayor of color as more than symbolic progress. He expects the upcoming election to carry real impact.

“It’s a political positive to understand what it is to be discriminated against,” he said. “I think that would open up some eyes.”

Some of Boston’s past traumas remain very close to the surface.

For years, conflicts over the city’s segregated schools and public housing triggered protests and even violent backlash. In “Southie,” as South Boston is called, buses bringing in Black children under federal court order were at times stoned. Black families were moved into public housing there with police escorts.

Then in late 1989, a White man from the suburbs claimed that a Black man had carjacked him, robbed him and shot him and his pregnant wife while they were waiting for a red light in the Mission Hill neighborhood. Charles Stuart’s wife died at a hospital and the baby, delivered early via Caesarean section, subsequently died.

The official response from the city, police and local media was credulous and harsh. Officers entered public housing buildings without warrants, stripped dozens of Black men naked and lined them up on the ground with their hands cuffed behind their backs. A few were detained as suspects.

Two months later, Stuart jumped to his death off a bridge after his younger brother confessed to police that Stuart had been the gunman. He’d killed his wife for insurance money.

While those ugly veins are marbled into Boston’s history, candidates like acting Mayor Janey embody the city’s evolution.

“I stand here as someone who grew up in the city of Boston, was bused during the desegregation era, faced rocks and racial slurs as an 11-year-old girl just trying to get an education,” Janey noted during an event several days ago. The fact that she was in position to step into the mayor’s role this spring “is a testament to how far our city has come.”