Heroin seen as statewide, local problem

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced that $8.7 million in federal funds has been awarded to New York state to help prevent heroin use and overdoses among adolescents in the state.

The governor added that money is also available to help combat the use of opiate and prescription drug abuse.

“This funding will help in our battle against heroin and prescription drug abuse, an epidemic that disproportionately affects teens and young adults, and has resulted in far too much needless tragedy,” Cuomo said. “Drug abuse has devastating consequences for families across New York, and these grants are another way our administration is working to help communities fight this heads on, and ultimately save lives.”

Since 2009, heroin confiscations in the U.S. have been on the rise, according to the National Seizure System, an organization that gathers information on drug seizures from participating law enforcement organizations. The rise in the number of seizures also exists as a problem in Oswego County.

Between the years 2009 and 2013, heroin seizures have increased 87 percent in the country. Along with the rise of seizures, the number of heroin abusers has increased by 113 percent between 2004 and 2012, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Gwen Kay, a history professor at Oswego State who specializes in the history of medicine and science, credits the new legislation I-STOP, a prescription-monitoring program, as part of the reason why heroin has been on the rise in Oswego County and nationwide.

“I-STOP is for physicians and pharmacies and it was supposed to be implemented in place, ready to go, this spring,” Kay said. “If you see a doctor and you get various prescriptions, especially opiates, the doctor now has to put your name in a database.”

The point of I-STOP is for narcotic regulation.

What’s happening is people are getting addicted, or they’re getting (narcotics) and they’re selling them,” Kay said. “As soon as you limit the opiates that are available and as soon as you’re addicted – and opiates are incredibly addictive – people who have been using opiates are going to switch to heroin because it’s still going to be available.”

Jeff Kinney, an investigator in the district attorney’s office for the Oswego County Drug Task Force, said the first time he encountered heroin recently was in 2011, which was an isolated case.

Crack cocaine, which was the drug of choice in Oswego County for years, started to dwindle when heroin use began showing up again, according to Kinney.

“I’m going to say for the last year, year-and-a-half, heroin has just exploded,” Kinney said. “Far and wide heroin has become the drug of choice. I think a large part of that is a lot of people were on the pills. Prescription medications were being prescribed by a lot of physicians. Then there was legislation … and it became very restricted as far as getting your Hydrocodone and Oxycontin.”

Kinney said many of the people the task force has arrested for heroin were addicted to pills beforehand and then heroin became cheaper and easier.

Task force has not been able to get any statistics on overdoses and overdose deaths in Oswego County after many failed attempts.

“It’s very difficult,” Kinney said. “They (the Health Department) cite HIPAA reasons, although we’re not looking for names, we’re looking for numbers. They’re very, very hesitant to give out those statistics and I don’t know why.”

The task force wants the statistics on overdoses to inform heroin abusers of the risks involved with the drug and how the potency can change.

“Just because you get a bag of heroin today doesn’t mean you’re going to get the same bag of heroin tomorrow,” Kinney said. “It’s like playing Russian roulette with a bag of heroin. It scares the hell out of me.”

Kinney said a bag of heroin in Oswego costs roughly $15 to $20. In Syracuse, he said a bag costs between $6 and $10. The change of price is due to supply and demand, according to Kinney. The heroin in Oswego used to come from Rochester in 2008 and 2009, Kinney said, but recently it has come from Syracuse.

According to Kinney, New York State Police have cited that labs have found a bag of heroin – or an envelope – to be between .02 grams and .39 grams. Drug dealers have recently lowered the amount to .02 grams of heroin per bag because they are trying to make more profit. A bundle of heroin is 10 bags, and a brick is 50 bags.

Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs there is. According to Oswego County Chief Assistant District Attorney Mark Moody, it takes about three to five grams of cocaine to get someone high, and it takes less than .02 grams of heroin to get a person high.

“That tells you the difference between the amount of cocaine and the amount of heroin people use to get high,” Moody said.

Someone who is caught with heroin possession is charged with a misdemeanor, however if the authorities can prove that person has heroin with intent to sell, they are charged with a B Felony.

Kinney said jail time depends on the person’s prior criminal history.

“If they can articulate to their attorney that they’re selling primarily to support habit, there are programs designed to get them the help to get sober in hopes that they’ll stop selling,” Kinney said.

Some people who plead guilty and are addicted to heroin are eligible for judicial diversion and drug court programs in which they enter a monitored program mandated by a city court judge.

“People enter it with the idea that they’ve plead guilty, they’ve entered the program, and if they successfully complete the program they’re given a lesser sentence, usually a misdemeanor or probation,” Moody said. “Whereas if they fail the program, they go to state prison.”

Moody calls this technique the “big carrot, big stick” approach.

“You have the opportunity to virtually get rid of your felony convictions, and that’s the big carrot,” Moody said. “And the big stick is that if you don’t, you go to state prison.”

Someone Kinney recently arrested in Oswego County had three bricks of heroin. The man was on a treatment program for addiction and claimed he was clean for over eight months, but he started selling heroin and got addicted to the money.

“He was selling heroin knowing the effects of it, and I questioned him of that,” Kinney said. “He didn’t have an answer.”

Heroin has what are referred to as “stamps,” which is a way of marketing for the dealers. If someone buys heroin with a certain stamp on it and he or she likes it, they know they can go back to the dealer and ask for that stamp.

Some heroin bags look like parchment paper, and are slightly see-through, while others look like plastic sandwich bags. Some of the stamps on the bags include: “Arm & Hammer,” with an arm and hammer symbol; “Safe Trip,” with an airplane ascending on it; “Stone Age,” with a cartoon character; “777” in red letters; “Deadman Walking”; “Section 8”; “Soul Tape”; “Versace” and “Grave Digger.”

“Believe it or not, I’ve had informants tell me that when someone overdoses and it’s associated with that stamp, people want that stamp,” Kinney said.

To combat the issue of heroin in Oswego County, drug enforcement agencies are attempting to find the sources supplying the community with heroin. The county is working on judicial diversion programs and is educating adolescent people in schools and treatment facilities on the drug.