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May 23, 2016 5:35 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Community, Lawmakers Combat Growing Heroin Epidemic

Heroin use took off in 2010, and experts agree that prescription drug dependence typically leads to experimentation with that drug, because both of them produce the same high, yet the high from heroin is almost instant, lasts longer and costs significantly less.   PRESS FILE
May 23, 2016 5:35 PM

No one ever imagines that they will one day become a heroin addict.

John was one of those people.

The 2006 Southampton High School graduate never experimented with drugs or alcohol during his teen years. Quiet and studious, he spent most of his time outside the classroom traveling with his family instead of drinking in a friend’s basement or smoking marijuana at the beach.

But entering his freshman year at Villanova University proved to be a daunting experience—and the easiest way to fit in and make friends, he explained, was partying.

And snorting prescription drugs.

“What was really popular at the time was oxycodone. That was really the thing, and it was very casual—it was just painkillers you got from parents,” said John—not his real name; he spoke on condition of anonymity, and The Press has changed his first name.

“It was so available—it was just everywhere—and so many people would do it,” he added. “A lot of people had so-called ‘dirty doctors’ who wrote prescriptions in exchange for cash. That was very normal.”

What seemed harmless at first eventually spiraled John into years of heroin abuse, along with two stints in a local rehabilitation facility.

His story—a person getting hooked on prescription drugs, then finding a cheaper, harder-hitting alternative in heroin—is one that many Long Islanders have sadly heard before, especially in Suffolk County. According to the 2015 New York State Opioid Poisoning, Overdose and Prevention Report, 337 individuals in the county died from heroin-related overdoses between 2009 and 2013. The number is the highest rate in all of the state’s 62 counties.

While there are no regionally specific numbers, law enforcement officials on the South Fork agree that the number of opioid-related arrests has increased dramatically since 2010. And at a local inpatient rehabilitation facility, those enrolled for heroin use take up about 35 percent of available beds.

The prevalence of this drug use has also become a key issue to tackle for government officials, many of whom are trying to combat the problem at the local, state and federal levels.

“It’s an issue—it’s here,” said Detective Sergeant Greg Schaefer of the East Hampton Town Police Department. “There’s an increase in heroin and the amount of heroin we’re finding on people. It’s such a strong addiction.”

A Punch From
A Velvet Glove

John is now 28 and has been sober for two and a half years. But more than six years of his life were lost to his drug addiction.

It started when he was 18. At Villanova, he snorted oxycodone with friends at parties, buying 80-miligram pills for $80 a pop and crushing them up so they would last a couple of days.

But the more he got high off the opioid, the more his tolerance grew—as did his craving for the drug. He gradually began going through multiple pills a week.

John’s 4.0 grade-point-average dropped. He was losing focus in class. By his junior year, his grades had fallen so low, and he had blown through most of his money, that he opted not to return to the university for his senior year.

In Southampton, though, oxycodone pills were hard to come by. Also, by 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new formulation for oxycodone pills that made them harder to crush and abuse. “It just wasn’t accessible anymore,” John said. “People like me couldn’t get as high off the pills anymore.”

A friend introduced him to snorting powdered heroin. For just $10 a bag, it was “a bargain” compared to the $80 he spent for each oxycodone pill—and, to him, was a better alternative to experiencing opioid withdrawal symptoms.

It quickly became his go-to drug.

Then came the opportunity to inject, or “shoot up,” heroin—and as much as he was hesitant to try it, John’s curiosity got the best of him, and he let a friend inject it into his arm one night.

“It was terrifying, because it does not compare to anything else,” he explained. “It is so powerful, so instant. It goes right into your bloodstream—head to toe, you can almost feel it spread.”

It was addiction at first hit, though he didn’t know it at the time.

“It’s the strangest thing. You shoot it, you can taste it in your mouth. It’s like this whole … amazing—” he paused, before continuing: “It’s crazy. The mind doesn’t stand a chance. As soon as it gets that, it wants more.

“It’s instant, full-body euphoria,” he said. “Your body instantly relaxes. It’s like a punch with, like, a velvet glove or something. You get hit, you feel great, so calm. It’s like this warmth that spreads through your body. It progresses to the point where you start nodding out a little. That’s mostly the thing—it’s a very calming, euphoric rush that just takes over.”

But chasing that high began to catch up with him. He was shooting up so much that he soon needed more than a single bag for every use, and despite the “bargain” $10 price tag, it still got expensive.

He coordinated with friends to run drugs in exchange for bags. He stole money from the restaurant where he worked. He stole from family. He did anything he could to get the drug in his body.

Despite the dark bruises on his arms from all the injections, he said he still didn’t know he was addicted. But it was obvious to others: “Everyone could see I was a mess. I was falling apart.”

Two Tries At Sobriety

John’s parents convinced him to go to the Seafield Center in Westhampton Beach, where he enrolled in a month-long detox and rehab program. He stopped using heroin cold turkey and participated in a very structured, regimented program consisting of three meals a day, assemblies, lectures and nightly Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous meetings for 28 straight days.

During his time at Seafield, it finally clicked that he was addicted to heroin. But he didn’t take that news very well, especially when he was told that in order to stay away from heroin, he would have to abstain from using other substances, like alcohol and marijuana, so as not to trigger his desire for the harder drug.

“That was really hard for me to wrap my head around,” he said. “I was devastated—I was really devastated. I was, like, I’m too young to never have a drink again. It was easy for me to accept [that], yeah, heroin is a problem. It made sense to me.

“I wasn’t sold on the not drinking, and I wasn’t sold on not smoking. I was, like, ‘No one is going to rehab for smoking marijuana,’” he added. “In my mind, I was, like, ‘That’s a joke—that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s weed. It’s fine.’”

Once he completed the program at Seafield, John continued going to Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous meetings—but not for very long. He eventually began smoking marijuana again. Things were going as well as they could, until he began drinking alcohol again.

He had gotten a new job at a restaurant, moved in with his girlfriend, and would drink when he got home at night. He drank until he blacked out, often waking up only to vomit. Then the next day would pan out the same way. The cycle repeated for about a year and a half.

Still, he thought he had a handle on his habit—that is, until a friend gave him roxicodone, another opioid. It sucked him back into the dark, twisted world of heroin.

“It started all over again. Within a month, I was back to zero. I had nothing,” he said.

“I didn’t know what to do. At that point, I was, like … I need help. That was the key difference between this time and last time. This time I was, like … I don’t want to live like this anymore. I had a moment of clarity.”

With the help of his parents, he found himself back at Seafield—but this time he stayed less than a month, only to detox. When he got out, he was determined to get back on his feet for good: “I did everything I didn’t do the last time around.”

Addressing An Epidemic

In the last 15 years, the gateway drug to hard drugs like heroin transitioned from marijuana to prescription drugs, mainly because of how accessible they became after changes in how doctors prescribed them were implemented in the late 1990s.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, two expert panels in 1997 introduced new federal, clinical guidelines for managing chronic pain, which required doctors and hospitals to create a pain scale for patients. And when that was put in place, doctors began prescribing pain medications more frequently.

“Ten years ago, the number of people seeking treatment for prescription drugs was less than 1 percent,” said Mark Epley, the chief executive officer of Seafield, and also the mayor of Southampton Village. “We watched it—we’ve watched the percent of people seeking treatment … increase.”

Heroin use took off in 2010, and experts agree that prescription drug dependence typically leads to experimentation with that drug, because both of them produce the same high, yet the high from heroin is almost instant, lasts longer and costs significantly less.

“[Pills] became so expensive, and then people turned to heroin because it’s so much cheaper,” said Lieutenant Susan Ralph of the Southampton Town Police Department. “Now we’re combating that epidemic.”

Throughout Long Island and New York, many measures have been taken to combat the heroin problem. In Suffolk County, the drug naloxone hydrochloride—commonly known as Narcan—was widely introduced in 2012 and has since saved hundreds of lives by reversing the effect a heroin overdose has on the brain, and blocking opioid receptors to help an individual who has overdosed breathe normally again. Officials have been working to get Narcan in the hands of more than just emergency personnel, with training classes on how to administer the drug being held regularly all throughout the county.

Government Help

Earlier this year, the State Assembly announced that its 2016-17 budget included $25 million for the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services to implement a Heroin and Opiate Treatment Prevention Package that would improve and expand treatment services. At the same time, the Senate budget included $167 million for opioid abuse prevention, treatment, recovery and education.

“Too many East End families have experienced the devastating effects of the heroin epidemic that is sweeping our state and our nation. The agony of addiction and the tragic loss of our loved ones is deeply heartbreaking,” Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. had said in a press release about the Assembly’s budget. “These funds are vital to protecting our children and other loved ones from falling victim to deadly heroin and opioid abuse. You can trust that I will continue to combat this scourge on our families with every tool at our disposal.”

“Fighting heroin and opioid addiction remains a top priority of mine,” Senator Kenneth P. LaValle had said in a press release. “The heroin crisis is affecting many communities throughout our region. Today, it touches individuals in every social and economic group. It’s critically important that we pull out all the stops to halt the spread of heroin.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo has been working specifically to fight the heroin epidemic since 2014 by introducing a number of reforms, including the multi-faceted Combat Heroin initiative and expanding insurance coverage for substance use disorder treatment. Last year, the state was awarded $8.1 million in federal funds to combat the heroin epidemic, specifically in people ages 12 to 25, and Mr. Cuomo said it would be used to meet a number of different goals, including reducing the number of prescription drug misuse and the number of oversode-related deaths, while increasing public awareness of the problem and increasing the number of Narcan training classes available to the general public.

Earlier this month, a statewide heroin task force was launched, made up of experts in health care, drug policy, advocacy and education, along with parents who lost children to overdoses, and New Yorkers in recovery, that will develop a comprehensive action plan to combat the opioid epidemic.

“Opioid addiction is a national epidemic that continues to plague families in communities across New York—and the state has been taking aggressive action to tackle this crisis head on,” Mr. Cuomo said in a press release. “The Heroin Task Force will take these efforts to the next level with a comprehensive action plan developed by a diverse coalition of experts. We will use the task force’s recommendations to implement smart solutions that will protect public health, enhance safety in communities statewide and save the lives of vulnerable New Yorkers.”

Additionally, at the federal level, lawmakers have been grappling on their end with how to address an epidemic that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, took the lives of more than 28,000 people in the United States in 2014—a record-breaking number. In response, U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin this month worked to pass a dozen bills in the House of Representatives that are related to battling heroin use.

“Through the years I, as well as many others, have noticed a disturbing trend in the increasing number of overdose deaths related to heroin and opioids,” Mr. Zeldin said in a recent interview. “It doesn’t impact just one kind of a community, it cross all demographics. It doesn’t matter your race, gender, social status, religion—it’s impacting everyone.”

Moving Ahead

John refers to drug addiction as an “equal opportunity affliction,” crossing every socioeconomic line: age, race, income level. Growing up in Southampton in a well-off family, with plenty of opportunities ahead of him, he never thought he would be susceptible to addiction.

And others agree—no one is invincible to drug addiction.

“It’s not the people you don’t care about—it’s everybody. Don’t just think it’s the drug dealer in the street,” said Vince Taldone, former president of the Flanders, Riverside, Northampton Community Association, an organization bridging three communities where drug use is suspected to be more acute than anywhere else in Southampton Town. “It’s just heartbreaking on any level,” he said.

John now lives in Sag Harbor, is engaged and getting married in September, and is finally finishing up his political science degree, with a concentration in Islamic and Arabic studies, from Villanova, via an online program. He plans to pursue a master’s degree afterward—though he hasn’t decided what to study just yet.

Things are going well, he said, but he takes things day by day.

“Really, it’s about getting some sober time under you, and then analyzing yourself, looking at all the emotional baggage in your life. And then just ... slowly entering into society again,” he explained. “You have to want it. And you can’t want it until you’re ready for it. No one can make you do it.”

But now that he’s had it for more than two years, he is determined to charge ahead, even though he could be easy to slip back into his old habits easily.

“You give me 24 hours, I could easily mess up my life,” he said. “Every day is a little bit of work.”

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This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By Preliator Lives (437), Obamavillie on May 25, 16 10:37 AM
I'm glad to see that John is doing better now. He has always been highly respected in my family, and we could always see that he would do well for himself, even when battling addiction.

Me, and my family, wish him the best of luck in his life and studies.
By Thotsakan (1), Southampton on May 25, 16 1:04 PM
2 members liked this comment
Normally, we would follow up on Facebook with this, but the anonymity of the website allows for some more candor here. So let's try something:

We know for a fact that the heroin epidemic, and the related abuse of prescription drugs, is a widespread problem in the community. It might help demonstrate just how widespread if our readers would share, here, their own stories about how the epidemic has touched their lives, or the lives of friends and family.
By Joseph Shaw, Executive Editor (206), Hampton Bays on May 26, 16 3:05 PM
1 member liked this comment