Local events following national trend
“It didn’t seem like there was anything wrong with it. I think it was pretty scary, but I didn’t want to be the person that was a pussy. And then it became totally normal. So when I was around heroin it was like… nothing else would really do the trick anymore,” John* said.
This is how John, a former heroin user, described his journey into the world of heroin. He said he began using the drug around the age of 15, after using marijuana, acid and meth. He said it was after the war in Vietnam had ended and before Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement of the 1980s.
“Nobody was really concerned about anyone getting high,” he said.
He said he continued using heroin intermittently until 1996, when his wife died from hepatitis transmitted through a contaminated needle.
John’s story is not an uncommon one. The National Institute on Drug Abuse stated in 2011 “4.2 million Americans, aged 12 and over… had used heroin at least once in their lives,” with the problem increasing dramatically in the last decade. NIDA reported from 2002 to 2012, the number of Americans who reported using heroin in the past year increased from 404,000 to 669,000. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of deaths involving heroin increased from 2,089 in 2002 to 4,397 in 2011.
Heroin in Ithaca
In Ithaca, Jamie Williamson, public information officer at the Ithaca Police Department, said heroin use has increased over the past four to six years.
However, he said the problem has escalated even more over the past month. As of Nov. 12, Williamson said there were 13 reports of overdoses due to heroin in Ithaca during the previous two and a half weeks, with two of them being fatal overdoses. He also said the IPD is investigating if heroin played a role in a third death. Williamson noted the 13 overdoses likely do not represent the full number of heroin overdoses in that time period, as many overdoses go unreported to the police.
He said the IPD thought the string of overdoses may have been the result of a heroin supply laced with an unknown substance. However, Williamson emphasized the investigation into the reason for the number of overdoses is ongoing.
“Good police work mandates that we keep all of our options open and that we don’t focus on one specific cause,” he said.
As of Nov. 12, Williamson said the IPD believed the possible supply of tainted heroin in the city had dwindled, because the rate of overdoses had started to plateau.
On Nov. 26, The Ithaca Voice reported five people were arrested in a heroin and crack cocaine bust. The Ithaca Voice reported police seized $695, 108 pre-packaged bags of heroin and 2.4 grams of packaged crack cocaine.
Why heroin is increasing
One of the main perpetrators, of what Rick Wallace, a local attorney and Ithaca City Court judge-elect called “the heroin epidemic” is pharmaceutical opiates. Wallace said pharmaceutical opiates have been prescribed to patients as pain medication at an increasing rate over the past ten years.
The use of opiates as pain medication has centered particularly in the U.S. According to a CNN report from Aug. 30, 80 percent of the world’s pain pills are consumed in the United States. The same report cited a spokeswoman from the NIDA who said nearly half of young people who inject heroin said they abused prescription opiates before using heroin, which is also an opiate.
Wallace said the prescription opiates used as painkillers are highly addictive.
“Somebody uses these drugs prescribed by a doctor and they feel this sense of not only relief from pain, but relief from the pressures of life,” Wallace said. “Because it’s an opiate, it has a profound cognitive and physiological effect.”
Patients will often run through their allotted amount of pain medication and crave more, Wallace said. He said many patients will then turn to the black market to buy the same pain pills they were prescribed by a doctor.
“But in the black market these pills are very expensive,” Wallace said. “And then along comes someone who says ‘try a little of this. It’s just as good, if not better, and it’s a lot cheaper and easier to find.’ And what they bring them is heroin.”
Wallace said he believed this transition from medically prescribed opiates to heroin is one of the main reasons heroin-related addiction is increasing.
Another part of the increase in heroin and drug use in general in Ithaca is the steady decline of the city’s drug treatment court, Wallace said. He said the number of participants in drug court has gone down in the same period that addiction to heroin and other drugs has gone up. Wallace said when he takes office as City Court Judge, revitalizing drug court will be one of his main priorities.
Addictive nature of the drug
Williamson said one of the reasons heroin-related crimes are so difficult to investigate is heroin users’ unwillingness to give up their supplier of the drug, which he said points to one of the underlying problems of heroin.
“I’ve talked to people that I’ve arrested that have said heroin goes from recreational use to addiction to destruction quicker than any drug they’ve ever experienced,” he said. “As soon as heroin digs its nails into you, you can’t get out from underneath it. It almost becomes like oxygen, you absolutely need it in order to survive.”
John said he used to go to New York City to get heroin. He said one way he paid for the drugs was by shoplifting from Sears stores between Ithaca and New York City. He said he would shoplift an item that cost $150 from one store, and then return it to another store in exchange for an item that cost $50. He said the store would reimburse him for the difference and he would buy heroin, sometimes up to 20 to 30 bags a day.
“And really you just get to the point where you don’t really care about anything else,” he said.
He said there was a window after the first couple times he used heroin where the drugs made him feel good.
“If you do once or twice a week, you can stay in that window for a long time, because it’s not until you start to do it every day that you start to develop a physical, and more than physical, a mental dependence on it,” he said.
Eventually, he said he got to the point where he couldn’t sleep without using heroin. He said this progressed to fears of running out of the drug.
“And that is way more powerful than actually running out,” John said.
The Alcohol and Drug Council of Tompkins County is a treatment facility that can help people addicted to heroin and other drugs. Stacy Cangelosi, education and prevention director at the council, said when someone addicted to heroin or any other drug comes in, a treatment plan is developed which includes individual and group appointments. However, with heroin, because of its painful withdrawal symptoms, Cangelosi said the council is sometimes forced to give patients a drug called suboxone.
“Suboxone is an opiate analog,” Cangelosi said. “The idea is that it will help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms. Heroin can have really horrible withdrawal symptoms that makes it hard for somebody to stop using and come find help.
“Suboxone is meant to be part of the process of treating a heroin addict, not the entire process,” Cangelosi said. She said the Council emphasizes self-help through counseling and group sessions before turning to suboxone, noting that it is possible for patients to get high off it.
However, Wallace said he is not in favor of using suboxone as a way to wean addicts off heroin.
“We tried it with methadone for a long time and there are people who are hooked on methadone for life,” Wallace said. “There became a black market for methadone. Same is happening with suboxone.”
John said he was not given suboxone when getting treatment for heroin addiction. He said in his particular circumstance he felt substituting one drug for another would not have worked.
“There were a lot of people that I knew that had quit doing heroin, who would switch to other drugs,” he said. “They would drink all the time, or they would smoke pot all the time. And for me it was like I sort of saw that I needed to abstain from all drugs in order to stay on one side of the line.”
He said the process of getting clean was difficult because he didn’t have the skills necessary to make a living. He said his particular treatment path led him to rehab multiple times, as well as Narcotics Anonymous. He said he still attends meetings every week to avoid relapsing.
For him, talking and hanging out with people who have had the same sorts of experiences with drugs has been the most effective way of curbing his addiction, he said.
“It’s the only way I’ve seen that’s effective other than moving to the top of a mountain in Nepal, or substituting another drug,” he said.
Cangelosi said another aspect of the fight against heroin is Naloxone, also known as Narcan, which is an antidote to heroin overdoses. Williamson said all IPD officers carry Narcan with them and are trained to administer it in the event of a heroin overdose.
Cangelosi also said more education and money for drug use prevention in accordance with a focus on law enforcement all need to be part of any solution to the heroin problem in Ithaca. However, she said an underlying aspect of the issue is the stigma that surrounds addiction. She said people need to think of addiction as a lifestyle disease.
“If you are experiencing negative consequences because of diabetes you would have no problem going to a doctor and asking for help,” she said. “It’s the same thing here [with addiction], it’s just people don’t look at it the same way. They think it’s a choice, that it’s a moral decision and they can just stop whenever they want. And we know that’s not the case.”
Cangelosi said people should look at addiction the same way they would any other medical condition.
Wallace agreed with Cangelosi’s assessment.
“The smartest response to addiction from a criminal justice point of view — including community safety — is to treat it as a public health issue,” he said.
Williamson said he understands the need for treatment regarding drug addiction, but feels the system also needs an aspect of enforcement.
“I think people need to be held accountable for their actions. Simply because somebody is addicted to some sort of crime does not excuse them from being held accountable,” Williamson said, adding that he believes harsher sentences for heroin related crimes would serve as a deterrent.
Wallace said while treatment is his preferred option, because he feels it better addresses the underlying reasons for drug addiction, consequences are also an important part of the drug treatment system.
“Sometimes you can use a carrot, but other times you need a stick,” he said.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.
Evan Popp is a freshman journalism major who really gets a rush out of writing his articles. You can email him at email@example.com.