Should Police Reveal Heroin 'Stamps' to Public?

By Paul Gaita 08/01/17

Some officials believe that making the stamps public will lead to more overdoses.

Two Vermont state policemen in the middle of a press conference
Vermont state policemen Photo via YouTube

Police in Brattleboro, Vermont decided against revealing the names and images stamped on packets of heroin that were associated with a string of overdoses that took place over a 24-hour period in early July 2017.

In a press release issued on July 7, Captain Mark Carignan said that he chose to withhold the images of the "stamps"—simple logos or images with text that are imprinted on glassine paper bags by dealers—linked to these cases in order to prevent users from seeking out particular batches, especially ones that may be associated with overdoses.

The Brattleboro department's decision highlights similar choices faced by other police departments across the state and country, in regard to informing the public about drugs in their communities.

Brattleboro first responders dealt with 11 overdoses in their city—"a significant number," according to a press release by Detective Lt. Jeremy Evans—between July 4 and July 5. Naloxone was reportedly administered in each instance—and while no fatalities were reported, two individuals were airlifted to area hospitals in "critical condition."

Initial investigations into the drugs that were involved with the overdoses found what Carignan described as "similarities between the overdoses, including identifying markers or 'stamps' on heroin bags." However, the press release by Evans issued on July 5 noted that multiple stamps were "observed or otherwise confirmed in relation to these overdoses"—indicating that there was not a "distinct connection" between all of the incidents.

In his statement from July 4, Captain Carignan said that it was the practice of the Brattleboro Police Department not to release identifying marks or stamps on heroin bags "due to the resulting drug-seeking behavior that often occurs with opiate addicts."

But the policy, which has been in effect at Brattleboro for decades, is not echoed by other police departments in Vermont and New England. Peterborough Police Chief Scott Guinard said that his department will release stamp information if it would serve the public, but acknowledges that publishing the stamp may hinder an investigation by alerting a supplier that a particular brand is being sought by police.

Police in Greenfield, Massachusetts favor identifying the stamp in order to alert families or friends of those with opioid dependency issues to stay away from a particular "brand," and has posted images of stamps on social media. "I think the benefit outweighs any potential risk," said Greenfield Detective Sergeant Dan McCarthy. "Unfortunately, people are going to make their own conclusions, but if we give them information to hopefully help them make a better conclusion, I think that's a win-win situation."

For many in law enforcement, choosing to identify stamps to the public or keeping that information private is less important than underscoring the fact that any bag of heroin can be potentially lethal. "I don't see [it] as clear—you're not buying Coke or Pepsi," said Brattleboro's Evans.

"It's way more blurred than that. [But] it's definitely a continuous conversation, and it's nothing to say that the police wouldn't change at some point. But up until now, it seems that we're safer not [releasing the information]."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.