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Historic Gloucester, Mass. : Drug Addiction Troubles a Peaceful Fishing Town

December 18, 1988|JOHN DIAMOND | Associated Press

GLOUCESTER, Mass. — This historic fishing port with its trawlers and luxury yachts, fish-processing plants and cliffside mansions has spent the last decade in a frustrating battle against a rising tide of heroin addiction.

A modest force of 51 patrolmen covers this city of 28,000 people and 32 square miles with no more than an average share of violent crime, break-ins and drunk driving.

But up to six times a year police are called to the scene of a drug overdose death, far more often than in other Massachusetts cities of similar size. "It appears it's never going to end," said Police Chief Earland Worthley.

A man found dead in November of an apparent overdose "came down here from Malden to do it," Worthley said. The drug is easy to find here, he said.

In 11 years as chief, Worthley said there have been 20 to 25 heroin overdose deaths. Drug counselor Ron Morin said there have been more than 30 in the last five years.

Close-Knit Families

Gloucester is a working-class community of large, close-knit families of French-Canadian, Portuguese, Yankee, Irish and Italian backgrounds. The community saw a lot of friction years ago when followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon became a major force in the local fishing industry.

Why did heroin come to Gloucester and stay?

"It defies an easy, simple explanation," said Essex County District Attorney Kevin Burke.

The obvious assumption that heroin comes in by boat is incorrect, he said; it comes by car from New York City, Providence and Chelsea, a blue-collar city near Boston.

Morin estimated that there are 300 heroin addicts in Gloucester, or roughly one resident in 100, a rate 62% higher than the statewide average. As recently as 1982 there were only about 50 Gloucester addicts, authorities said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, heroin was prevalent among young people all over eastern Massachusetts, Burke said. Heroin fell out of favor elsewhere, but in Gloucester "it never lost its appeal."

Idle Hours

The two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off schedule of many fishermen is conducive to alcohol and drug abuse, Morin said. A more important factor, he said, is Gloucester's isolation as a working-class community surrounded by wealthy seacoast communities like Manchester, Ipswich and Rockport.

"Gloucester, because of its position in the middle, tends to attract the losers from other communities," Morin said. "Gloucester's the place where you can live in a $50-a-week room."

Recently, Burke assigned two state troopers to Gloucester's four-member drug task force. "We're going to arrest as many people as we can who are using and abusing drugs. Maybe we can drive some folks into treatment," he said.

Earlier this year, Burke's office, in what he said was a first in the state, indicted two heroin dealers on manslaughter charges in the deaths of two addicts.

Possibly because Gloucester's heroin users are a part of a stable, family-oriented community, addiction has not brought with it the crime that besets other cities.

"It's still this little town surrounded by natural beauty and everybody knows everybody and nobody's living in fear and homes aren't being broken into," said Phil Salzman, a high school teacher who keeps a file of drug overdose obituaries to help him dramatize the problem in his classes.

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