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New Englanders tell US House panel about area's growing drug problems

``A small town, Central Falls, in the nation's smallest state, Rhode Island, has become the major New England distribution point of cocaine.'' This comment, from Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D) of New York, came during recent hearings held in Boston by the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, which he chairs. Inner-city communities, such as his native Harlem, are no longer the trafficking centers, he said.

The illicit drug trade is big business in Central Falls, witnesses told the committee: It's a $100 million operation in a one-square-mile mill town with a population of 23,000, three police detectives, and no hotels.

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New England is becoming a center for the drug trade, witnesses from around the region told the House panel late last month. They described how drugs get into the New England through rural areas and small towns such as Central Falls, across the Canadian border, and over the region's lengthy coastline.

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. headed a long list of witnesses from Massachusetts. They reported that drug abuse in the Bay State is well above the national average. The governor described activities of his state task force on drugs, listing various methods of attacking the problem, ranging from community action to prosecution of income-tax evaders.

Many witnesses testified to the growing drug problem in New England:

New Hampshire. Drugs are becoming more available in isolated communities in the state, and cheaper. ``We have the beginning of an epidemic, but we see the problem early enough to act,'' said Attorney General Stephen E. Merrill. ``We need help from [the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration].''

The state's Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, set up in 1983, concentrates on prevention of substance abuse and the treatment and rehabilitation of abusers.

Maine. ``Smuggling is a major enterprise in Maine with our 2,000 miles of coastline, 2,000 islands, 200 small isolated airports, and our unprotected border with Canada,'' Col. Allan Weeks, chief of the state police, reported. ``We've been fighting smuggling since 1977, but we're only touching the tip of the iceberg. Trade is shifting from pot [marijuana] to cocaine.''

Street drugs are becoming a problem among young people even in grammar schools, he also noted.

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Rhode Island. In addition to cocaine and marijuana, Rhode Island faces an expanding illicit trade in prescription drugs, says Charles Hachadorian Jr., drug control administrator for the state Department of Health.

``The conversion of legitimate drugs'' in pharmacies and hospitals spells trouble, he said. Of the 20 top drugs causing problems in Rhode Island 15 are ``prescription drugs lawfully prescribed within our state and the New England region,'' he said. He also deplored the rise of drug use in Rhode Island, 44th among the 50 states in per capita consumption in 1982, but 11th this year.

Vermont. This state stresses prevention. Act 51, passed in 1983, requires a K-to-12 ``alcohol and drug abuse'' prevention program by the end of the 1986-87 school year.

The Vermont Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs supervises this effort. It also runs training programs for parents and for teachers and supports the Green Mountain Teenage Institute and its peer-pressure program to prevent substance abuse.

Other witnesses described illegal drug operations and told of market specialists who use high technology to direct nationwide sales and of logistics experts who manage the shipment of 92-to-100 percent pure cocaine.

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