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No Murder Charge in NYS for Dealing Death
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Another young victim was lost last week to the war on drugs, a 23-year-old local woman who died of a drug overdose right here in Saratoga Springs. For her, and many families like hers, the drug war is more of a street fight, one that lurks in every home medicine cabinet, haunts every playground, and boldly grins through every neighborhood here and across America.
Parent Wake-Up Call
Local Teen Opiate Use Still on the Rise
SARATOGA SPRINGS – It was a night that would permanently suspend a parent’s disbelief. The Parent University of Saratoga Springs City School District presented a program in conjunction with the Prevention Council on Tuesday evening that brought home in no uncertain terms that the heroin epidemic is just as real in Saratoga Springs as it is across the country. The program, "The Heroin Epidemic - What is the Impact on Saratoga Springs?” was held April 28 in the Saratoga Springs High School Library to about 75 parents, district staff and community members.
Speakers included Robin Lyle Director of Coalition Development at the Prevention Council and Maigan, a 26-year-old recovering opiate addict. With facts, figures, and honest revelations, the speakers brought home to parents the ease with which any child can access and become addicted to prescription drugs and heroin, including in Saratoga Springs.
"By hosting the Parent University workshop on heroin addiction, the School District brought attention to a growing problem in our community,” said Michael M. Piccirillo, Superintendent of the Saratoga Springs City School District. “Parents need to be informed about the connection between gateway drugs like alcohol and marijuana, which can lead to the use of opiates like heroin, so they can be vigilant in ensuring the health and welfare of their children.”
“Abuse of prescription pain killers has become more common in small cities like this one,” said Lyle, “so it's important that we get this information out there. We're seeing increasing numbers of overdose situations, and the NY Times recently reported that heroin overdose deaths now exceed traffic fatalities nationwide.”
Lyle spoke about the causes of the heroin epidemic, which she says primarily is the use and misuse of prescription drugs. “Young people aren't seeing it as risky now that it doesn’t need to be injected anymore.”
She advises that parents dispose of any unused, unwanted prescription drugs. “Opiate-based prescription drugs can get them started on heroin. Kids can get the same high from heroin for cheaper than from prescription drugs, which can run $150 per pill. A small bag of heroin is about ten bucks. Fifty percent of participants in drug treatment have court criminal charges related to heroin use, and all but one started with prescription drugs.”
The audience also heard from Maigan, a recovering addict. “Maigan was really terrific,” said Lyle. “She had a lot to share. It’s a harrowing story of something that could happen to any child. She was honest and courageous, and when she spoke of spending $1,000 a day to support her habit, the audience just gasped.”
"Sadly we have been experiencing approximately 4-6 heroin related overdose deaths per year for the past couple of years," said Saratoga Springs Police Chief Greg Veitch. "We have another 20 or so responses to overdose situations that require transport to the hospital."
According to Saratoga Springs Fire Chief Robert Williams, “Heroin is cheaper and more available. Teenagers tend to experiment and it’s very addictive. Once it gets ahold of you, it’s tough to get it off your back.” He said they answered 135 calls in 2014 for poison ingestion, which included alcohol and accidental or purposeful overdose. He said they administered Narcan 13 times over the last 12 months. “Narcan neutralizes the opiate receptors, reversing the effects within seconds.”
“We have definitely seen a significant rise in heroin,” said Veitch. “For perspective, from 2001-2006 when I worked in the narcotic unit as an investigator we never once were able to buy heroin on the street. From 2008-2013 when I supervised the drug unit we only purchased heroin on the street sporadically, maybe a few times per year. Today (2014-2015) we buy heroin on the street in about half of all narcotics purchases, which is about 20-30 times per year. We routinely arrest people in possession of small amounts and with needles (several times per month).”
“It's good that schools be very concerned about opiate addiction,” said William Bean, Program Manager at St. Peter's Addiction Recovery Center (SPARC) in Saratoga Springs at 125 High Rock Avenue. “They can help parents realize the issue is more the over-prescribed availability of opiates in households, which is a much more insidious problem than they might think. Adolescents will experiment with pills that are free. They find them and share them. We must let parents know that this medication needs to be closely guarded and locked up.”
Prescription drugs containing opiates that are often abused include: Vicodin (hydrocodone & acetaminophen), Percocet (oxycodone &acetaminophen), Oxycontin (oxycodone), Darvon (propoxyphene), Dulaudid (hydromorphone), morphine and codeine. Codeine can also be found in prescription cough medicine. For parents unsure if their medication includes opiates, Bean advises, “When in doubt, lock it up.”
A couple years ago, the state passed a law that mandated controlled substance prescriptions go into a shared database so people cannot go from doctor to doctor getting over-prescribed.
Dr. Manuel Astruc, M.D., Medical Director at Saratoga County Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment Center and practicing psychiatrist in Saratoga Springs for 18 years, added that the new law had some unintended consequences. “This new system mandates medical practitioners to check the patient’s database for already-prescribed controlled substances,” he said. “Now that supply has dried up. It’s resulted in more people turning to heroin. This is a real problem because they don’t know what they’re getting on the street. Potency and purity varies, increasing the risk of people dying from accidental overdose.”
Fortunately, recovery programs have improved greatly over the years and many are outstanding. “The adolescent program here is for those between 12 and 17 years old,” said Bean. “There are usually about 12-15 kids in a program on average. Groups meet twice a week, one with a family member present, such as a parent, and the other a teen topics group. We also have individual sessions. The average length of stay in the program is right around six months to eight months.”
Bean said that many of the program’s adolescents are referred either through a school, a family member, or through the legal system such as PINS, family court, criminal court, a probation officer, or a family physician or mental health provider such as Four Winds in Saratoga Springs.
“Recidivism is an issue, but anecdotally, I think that involving one or both parents has been very effective,” said Bean. “We know that treating an adolescent as an adult is not effective. We have wonderful staff here who do wonderful work with kids, and are able to hold their attention. We’ll see some kids come back into treatment and perhaps fall back into trouble, but there's no cure for addiction. That’s where parents come in, and it’s not easy. Adolescents are not really set up to talk with much intimacy with adults. Developmentally they are supposed to be developing relationships with their peers. When a parent asks an adolescent ‘where does it hurt’, it's counter-developmental. We introduce ways of communication to normalize that, educate parents and adolescents and help the process. Although they may look like it, the truth is that kids don’t stop listening.”
Dr. Astruc reminds parents, “An adolescent’s central nervous system hasn’t matured, which makes them more prone to risky behaviors. They are not adults, so we have to manage those expectations.”
Bean said that the issues that lead to someone wanting drugs start at a very early age. “The problems didn't happen yesterday,” he said. “We see a lot of parents come in and say ‘fix Johnny, there's nothing wrong with us’, but in truth it is a family disease. Nobody asks for addiction, but something in the family opens this up. Parents are going to ask, ‘how can we see this coming’, but you really can't.”
So what can a parent do? “Be as genuinely interested in your teenagers’ lives without smothering them,” said Bean. “As they get older, let them stretch outside the home, but still be involved and hold them accountable, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Kids do turn themselves around with treatment, and treatment helps everyone in the family. Communication is the central core of all of this. Listening and asking questions that lets them know you’re listening.”
"Monitor the painkillers or other prescriptions given legitimately to your child," said Lyle. "Count them, or dispense just the amount your child needs for that day. That way you know where those pills are going." Following doctor's orders will help keep children from becoming addicted to their medications that contain controlled substances like opiates.
"Teens and young adults often do not understand the risks associated with drug use," said Veitch. "In particular, heroin addiction is exceptionally difficult to handle for both the user and their loved ones. Heroin is an issue in Saratoga Springs as it is everywhere and law enforcement is only one part of the solution. Families, friends and service agencies all have a part to play in reducing the adverse effects that heroin has on individuals, their loved ones and the community.
Parent University is a community collaboration that offers opportunities for parents and caregivers to continue their learning. All events are open to parents, caregivers and staff of all buildings and grade levels.
Heroin: No Community Has Immunity
SARATOGA SPRINGS— We tend to wax romantic about our community. And in truth, compared to other communities, we are relatively safe. As such, we sometimes fall into an illusion that we are insulated from the worst of society’s ills.
But at street level, there’s no such illusion. This is the reality Sergeant Tim Sicko and the Saratoga Springs Police Investigation Division sees:
“Just in the last four to five months, we’ve seen over a half-dozen overdoses from heroin.” He said. Moreover, “the number of heroin buys my (undercover) officers make have risen significantly over the past two and one-half years I’ve been in charge of the division.” The Investigation Division oversees both the drug and criminal units.
When asked to estimate the percentage, Sergeant Sicko commented. “Undercover buys of heroin were maybe 2 out of 100 just a couple of years ago, when we saw mostly crack cocaine and pills on the street. Today, I would estimate it’s closer to 50 percent.” He said.
The Prevention Council of Saratoga confirms that a significant uptick in heroin usage in this community has occurred, as part of a nationwide trend. Executive Director Janine Stuchin noted:
“No one starts off on heroin. National and local studies have shown that the recent upsurge in heroin use is directly connected with prescription pain killer (opiate) abuse.”
The purpose of this article is not to sensationalize or unduly alarm, but to educate and advocate that if your head is in the sand about heroin in Saratoga County and you are thinking “it can’t happen here,” take a look around.
“It” already is happening.
And while no one will purport that Saratoga County has as bad a problem as some of the larger and more urban cities, to deny the insidious presence of this most insidious of drugs would be irresponsible.
Both Ms. Stuchin and Sgt. Sicko cite the relative inexpensiveness of heroin as a factor in its recent rise in usage. “Heroin is less expensive than illicit prescription pain killers such as oxycodone, explaining the trend toward increased heroin use.” Ms. Stuchin noted. Sgt. Sicko also noted the “difficult, painful withdrawal process” that is involved from heroin once addicted that will naturally keep people looking for their next fix.
Compounding this is the phenomenon of the “chase after the initial high,” as Sgt. Sicko put it, which would lead a user who might have started snorting heroin to graduate to a needle for a greater effect.
Finally, you have the factor that, according to any study, the profile of the heroin user is younger than ever. “One of the recent overdoses we had was someone in their 20s,” Sgt. Sicko noted, “fortunately, he was not a fatality.”
For the user, Sgt. Sicko noted that a factor compounding the danger of heroin are the other substances that are lacing it; substances which can be even more lethal than the heroin itself. “You don’t know what you are accepting or where it came from.” Sgt. Sicko noted. “In contrast, you can look at a given pill and if you are savvy, recognize the manufacturer – although this is not foolproof.”
Heroin dealers attempt to mitigate this by engaging in a “branding” exercise: Labeling their nickel or dime bags with a logo or markings that would tend to inspire a false sense of confidence – I’ve bought this before, it’s OK – yet, Sergeant Sicko rightly points out that the street dealer has little knowledge of where today’s batch came from, if they were inclined to care in the first place.
He spread an array of evidence bags before us and my eyes kept going to one dealer’s mark.
All I could think of was: How desperate would you have to be to shoot up from a bag that is marked “Game Over.”?
But is the game over? Hardly.
“We have a number of full-time people who are on top of this daily,” Sgt. Sicko notes, “you’re seeing a significant increase in heroin arrests because our people, working with other law enforcement divisions such as the State Police, as well as a network of informants, are battling this daily and we have no intention of pulling back.”
“We are nowhere near the level of activity of other cities precisely because we are fortunate to have a group of young officers who are dedicated and on top of things… when a dealer comes to town to set up shop, we usually know who that person is already,” he continued. “But it’s a matter of constant vigilance.”
In that connection, Sgt. Sicko noted that while the profile of the heroin user the police are has gotten younger, this is not a major problem at either the High School (where he lauded the work of Officer Lloyd Davis who is stationed there), or on the Skidmore campus at this point.
The Prevention Council confirms this, to some extent. “Our data from student surveys in Saratoga County show about eight percent of high school students are involved in prescription drug abuse and one percent reporting using heroin,” noted Janine Stuchin.
Any law enforcement officer would acknowledge that even with a consistent focus on interdicting heroin supply, long-term effectiveness of any effort is dependent upon programs that educate and impact on demand. Sgt. Sicko, while acknowledging that the restoration of D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) funding in the city is something on his “wish list,” cites that the education programs provided by the Prevention Council are invaluable.
“The role of the Prevention Council in addressing the scourge of heroin in our community is to be preventive rather than reactive.” Ms. Stuchin said. We do this though programs, like Too Good for Drugs, taught in many local school districts, which educate children on the inherent dangers.”
“We regularly collaborate with law enforcement with drug take-back days. For instance, the next National Prescription Take-Back Day will be Saturday, April 26 and we will be announcing local sites that will be participating.”
But both the police and Prevention Council note that the real education and greatest impact is an outgrowth of effective parenting. “Parents should not be afraid to talk to their kids and find out ‘what do you know about this stuff?’ Look at who they are hanging out with and take note of changes in behavior and appearance, for instance.” Sgt. Sicko says.
While it would be nice to have an ending here, in fact this is a story about the process of progress, the ebb and flow of societal struggles and responses; perhaps a battle that will never be won, but nonetheless a battle worth undertaking daily.