A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the rate of deaths from opioid overdoses has nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014.
The CDC also found that more than 165,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses during the same 15-year period. In 2015, 2,457 people died in New York State due to an accidental opioid overdose.
According to the Texas Opiate Detoxification Specialists’ website, opioids are any drug made from the opium poppy. This includes prescription painkillers such as morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone, as well as street drugs like heroin.
Oswego County has not escaped the opioid overdose epidemic. According to research from the Oswego County Prevention Coalition, three addiction treatment centers, Farnham Family Services, the County of Oswego Council on Alcoholism and Addictions, COCOAA and Harbor Lights Chemical Dependency Services, have seen an increase in the percentage of people treated for heroin and opioid addiction. The percent of all patients treated for opioid abuse rose from 18.8 percent in 2011 to 38.4 percent in 2015.
According to the coalition’s data, heroin use by people of all ages in Oswego County is on the rise. From 2011 to 2014, heroin use among those under age 25 has increased 201 percent and heroin use for people over age 25 has increased 325 percent.
“Back when I first got into the field, about 10 years ago, it tended to be more alcohol and marijuana,” said Andrew Long, the program director at the
Harbor Lights, located in Mexico, New York. “But over the years, I’ve definitely noticed more painkillers like oxycotin and hydrocodone, as well as the heroin use.”
According to Long, people can become addicted to opioids from taking prescription medication as a result of chronic pain.
“Even if you take [prescription painkillers] as prescribed, you can develop a physical dependence on it and it builds tolerance over time and you need more and more, heavier and heavier stuff,” Long said. “A couple of years ago, they really started to crack down on over prescription of pain medications, so doctors became more hesitant to prescribe, which led people to find heroin, which was cheaper and provided a better high or more relief or whatever they were looking for.”
According to the CDC, people who are addicted to prescription opioid painkillers are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin. Approximately three out of four heroin users reported abusing prescription opioids before they began to use heroin. The CDC cites “the increased availability, lower price, and increased purity of heroin” as possible contributing factors to the rise in heroin use.
“A lot of the times, addiction doesn’t just appear on its own,” Long said. “There’s usually other factors that come into play, be it family issues, and I’m not necessarily just talking domestic violence or something like that. A lot of these people grew up with families that abused substances and it kind of became the norm for them. They haven’t really experienced what normalcy is outside of their families.”
People who have mental health issues are also more likely to abuse drugs. According to Long, people with mental health issues “try to use substances to deal with their mental health, but that usually ends up making things worse in one way or another.”
Harbor Lights treats people of all different ages for a number of different addictions, including alcohol, gambling and drugs. Many of their clients are mandated to go to treatment by the court system, although some people do come on their own because they want to get sober.
“Some people come once or twice and they’ll disappear because they don’t want to come anymore,” Long said. “There are people who require a higher level of care than we’re able to provide so we have to refer them out and people who want to stay forever because they like coming here, they like therapy and it just works for them.”
Since Harbor Lights is an outpatient treatment center, the counselors focus mostly on talk therapy. The center offers a number of different programs, including once a week individual sessions with a counselor and group therapy sessions that can meet up to five times a week.
“We educate people about substances, the addiction process, about what different substances can do to you physically, mentally and emotionally,” Long said. “We work with people to predict what is going to happen to them. We try to show them the negative effects that can come from substance use, which includes legal, health and relationships issues. We try to work with them to develop coping skills, skills they can use to actively stay away from drug use, refuse drug use if it should be offered or be around and develop networks of supportive, healthy people.”
Currently, there are no inpatient rehabilitation centers in Oswego County. In addition to Harbor Lights, there are two other addiction treatment centers in Oswego County, COCOAA and Farnham, which both have offices in the City of Oswego and Fulton.
The Oswego County Prevention Coalition installed a prescription drug drop box in the lobby of the Oswego Police Department.
The drop box is a safe way for community members to dispose of unwanted prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
“That was absolutely one of the best things we could do for this community, to get the prescription medications out of people’s homes and to get them off the streets and not in our water system,” said Penny Morley, the coalition’s co-chair. “They’re incinerated, so it’s much healthier for the environment as well.”
Items that can be put in the drop box include prescription pills, patches, medication and ointments, over-the-counter pills, vitamins, samples and medication for pets.
Thermometers, needles, hydrogen peroxide, inhalers, aerosol cans, over-the-counter ointments, lotions and liquids and medications from businesses or clinics cannot be placed in the drop box due to safety concerns.
“This is very important because that’s where a lot of the drugs are being found, just in people’s medicine cabinets and homes,” said coalition member Teresa Woolson.
According to Robin Burdick, the coalition’s part-time coordinator, the coalition is working on securing another location for an additional drop box in Oswego County.
The Oswego County Sheriff’s Department has “seen a dramatic increase in usage” of prescription drugs and heroin, according to Oswego County Undersheriff Eugene Sullivan, III.
“What we see more traditionally is that [Oswego County] residents go to Syracuse and end up overdosing in Syracuse,” Sullivan said. “I think Onondaga County has seen a significant increase in heroin deaths, but some of them have certainly been our residents that have gone down there to buy their drugs or use drugs.”
According to Sullivan, it is difficult to determine exactly how the drugs are entering Oswego County.
“[The City of] Oswego seems to have a pretty strong connection to the city of Rochester because of the [Route] 104 corridor,” Sullivan said. “Fulton and the east side of the county seem to gravitate more toward Onondaga County and Syracuse. But then you’ve got the whole [Route] 81 corridor, which leads to points north and south, including, but not limited to, the Saint Regis [Mohawk Tribe] reservation.”
New Visions Allied Health, a program run through Oswego County BOCES, conducted a survey in 2014 of high school students throughout Oswego County to determine high school student’s awareness of drug use. According to the survey, 19.8 percent of those surveyed rated Oswego County’s drug problem at a seven out of 10.
“It’s all about raising awareness and breaking down the stigma,” Burdick said.
According to Woolson, many drug counseling professionals now refer to substance abuse as “substance use disorder” to help with the stigma of substance abuse.
“No one chooses to be an addict,” Woolson said in an interview in February. “It’s a disorder; it needs to be treated as that and that’s how the county, state and country is leaning, because it’s such an epidemic.”