PEPPERELL -- Police Chief David Scott was surprised by the data in a color-coded map that showed the number of drug deaths in Pepperell from 2012 to April 2014 was much higher than in nearby towns.
"For our area, we were very high," he said.
According to the information supplied by the Middlesex County District Attorney's Office, Pepperell had five deaths during that time. In comparison, Townsend had one death, and Groton had none.
Scott attended an information and training session in April on nasal Narcan, an antidote for drug overdoses, when he saw the map.
"We knew we were a bit higher than neighboring towns," he said, though he did not realize how much higher.
Each year, more people die from drug overdoses than from motor-vehicle accidents or gunshots, Dr. Wayne Pasanen said.
Pasanen is medical director for Habit OPCO in Lowell, medical co-director for Habit OPCO in Fitchburg, and vice president of medical affairs at Lowell General Hospital. Habit OPCO provides medical assistance for opioid-use disorder.
"I say it's an epidemic even in the rural communities of Massachusetts," he said. "It's really almost compounded by geography, in a way."
Most people will not seek help and not even recognize a problem with their drug use, he said. And those who seek help do not have easy access to treatment.
Heroin addicts treated through a medical-assistance program like the one provided by Habit OPCO need the drug daily.
Pepperell is working on the problem. The town's Board of Health recently received a grant to purchase supplies and training materials so the Police Department can use Narcan.
Trainers are in place, and the department is awaiting a memorandum of understanding from Dr. Scott Murray at Nashoba Valley Medical Center before police officers can take the training and administer Narcan.
Emergency medical personnel already carry and can use an intravenous form of Narcan.
"Education and prevention are the ultimate solutions," Pasanen said. "It's not the drugs, it's the feelings the drugs create."
Initially, users of opioids, including heroin, anti-anxiety medications and narcotics, feel euphoric after using the drugs, he said. They are tricked and then trapped into an addiction. Without the drug, they will be sick.
"The medical profession has to be more aware than they have been of the treatment of pain with narcotics," Pasanen said. "Doctors do not get up in the morning to create drug addicts.
"I'm doctor don't-feel-bad," Pasanen said of his work with addicts at Habit OPCO. "I'm treating people so they don't feel sick, so they don't feel dope-sick."
Programs using methadone, like Habit OPCO, have about an 80 percent cure rate, he said. People do relapse, but eventually can become drug-free.
To fight drug use on a local level, the Pepperell Police Department needs to attack on two fronts -- education and enforcement, Scott said.
The department no longer has a Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, officer. Two police positions were cut in 2009, and another two in 2014. The officer would go into schools and work with students, but it was one of the eliminated positions.
Most departments the size of Pepperell's have one full-time detective, Scott said. Because of personnel cuts, one detective splits his time between detective work and going on patrol.
Before the cuts in 2009, Pepperell had 18 officers, including the chief.
"We have to cover the minimum shifts," Scott said.
As a result, he said, officers are not always available for other work. The medical center, for example, had to postpone work that required a traffic detail because no officers were available to work it.
An override that includes funding to restore two of the positions at the department goes to Town Meeting for approval tonight. If it passes there, it will go on the ballot next Tuesday, when the state primary election is held. Funds for a new cruiser are also included in the article.
In addition to being challenged by a reduced force, the department has been working from trailers since mold was discovered in the police station at the end of last year. A forced-hot-air heating system spread the mold through the ductwork.
Scott hopes to be back in the building this month.