What to know about the addiction crisis in New Bedford
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What to know about the addiction crisis in New Bedford

This article is part of an ongoing New Bedford Light series examining the far-reaching impacts of addiction.

The addiction crisis has touched every aspect of life in New Bedford. Illicit drugs are in homes, on fishing boats, in schools, and in jail. 

The New Bedford Light’s ongoing series, The Addiction Factor, has taken a deep look at the effects of the crisis — and what the city can do to address it. These are the top takeaways from the series so far.

EMS Deputy Director David Zander stands beside a paramedic pulling a stretcher back into the ambulance parked outside St. Luke’s Hospital. Credit: Eleonora Bianchi / The New Bedford Light

People in New Bedford die of drug overdoses at twice the statewide rate

More than 541 people have died of accidental drug overdoses in New Bedford since 2015, The Light’s analysis of death certificates found. The vast majority of those deaths involved fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid that now dominates the illicit drug supply.

Even if you don’t know someone who died of a drug overdose, it’s likely you know someone who has struggled with addiction. Roughly one in every eight city residents received addiction treatment between 2012 and 2023, according to state data analyzed by The Light.

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Christi Jardin, standing in the Dawn’s New Day sober house kitchen, prepares coffee. Credit: Eleonora Bianchi / The New Bedford Light

Sober homes can be a critical step to recovery, but some are more sober than others

Recovery advocates say that sober homes can provide a stable place for people to live in the early stages of recovery, which is key to staying sober in the long-term. But they’re not licensed by the state. While some sober homes do good work, others are hotspots for relapse and overdose, advocates told The Light.

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The New Bedford waterfront. Credit: Jodi Hilton for the Marshall Project

Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for New Bedford fishermen

At least 70 New Bedford fishermen died of drug overdoses between 2018 and 2022. During that time, fentanyl killed more fishermen than car crashes, work-related accidents, heart disease or cancer. 

Drugs have long been pervasive on the waterfront. Though fishermen and addiction counselors say drug use is less common in the industry than it used to be, fentanyl has made it much more deadly. More boats are now stocking overdose-reversing medications and following zero-tolerance drug policies.

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Jason Michaels. Photo provided by Evelyn Marie Michaels

Jail staff play a constant “cat and mouse” game with drug smugglers

Illicit drugs find their way into the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in all kinds of ways. They can be left for pickup at inmate job sites, sewed into clothing dropped off for an inmate to wear for court, or even attached to a kite and lofted onto a jail roof.

The Bristol County District Attorney has filed criminal charges in about 60 prison contraband smuggling cases over the last decade — and those are just the cases that went to court.

Seven or eight of every 10 inmates are estimated to have a substance abuse disorder. Three or four drug overdoses happen at the Dartmouth jail every year.

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At Normandin Middle School. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

Just attending school in New Bedford qualifies a student as “at risk” for substance use

High poverty, drug accessibility, and rates of drug use in the community have put all of the city’s children at risk, counselors say. There’s a waitlist for a drug prevention and response initiative at Keith Middle School, where 25 students are already enrolled in the program.

Students in the program mostly use nicotine, but some use marijuana or drink alcohol. Drug use at a young age can replace healthy coping mechanisms and put kids at risk for more severe addiction as an adult, counselors say.

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Photo illustration. Credit: Kellen Riell / The New Bedford Light, Unsplash

Treatment providers on the South Coast are trying to improve the region’s “continuum of care”

In the addiction treatment world, the complex network of treatment and recovery programs is known as the continuum of care. Ideally, people would smoothly sail from one stage of treatment to the next, receiving every service they need when they need it until they reach long-term recovery. In practice, the continuum isn’t all that continuous. The right resources don’t always materialize when people need them.

Relapse is common on the path to recovery, but local practitioners hope they can make it less common by identifying gaps in the continuum of care.

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Email Grace Ferguson at [email protected].

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