Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman wound up dead Sunday in New York City with a heroin syringe in his left arm. Local individuals who have overdosed on heroin wind up in A.O. Fox Memorial Hospital’s emergency room at least once a week, a hospital administrator said Tuesday.
Dr. Kelly A. Robinson, medical director of Fox Hospital’s emergency department, said a particularly close incident occurred about two weeks ago when a man in his mid-20s was dropped off at the emergency room, unconscious and unresponsive.
The man wasn’t breathing, Robinson said, and had overdosed on heroin.
“If he hadn’t been brought in,” Robinson said, “he would have died.”
The frequency of heroin-related emergency medical calls and hospital visits reflects the recent national and local resurgence of heroin use.
Julie Dostal, executive director at LEAF Council on Alcoholism and Addiction, called the local heroin problem a “crisis.”
“There may not be the typical shady character on the corner selling heroin in Oneonta, but people don’t have to look too far to get it,” Dostal said.
Dostal said the national revival of heroin is the fallout from a surge of prescription painkiller misuse. She said people who are in pain often develop a high tolerance level to their medicine and end up needing more-powerful medicine to overcome their symptoms.
According to Dostal, several laws have recently been put into place that make it difficult to attain prescription medications. She said pharmacies and hospitals keep detailed records of narcotics that are prescribed to ensure that patients cannot get a hold of more medicine than they are supposed to have. This, she said, is where heroin comes in.
As soon as prescription drug abuse was becoming more under control, Dostal said, heroin use skyrocketed.
“It was kind of a crazy, unintended result of the stricter prescription drug laws,” Dostal said. “Heroin is a cheap alternative to prescription drugs.”
Because of its low cost and easy accessibility, heroin is back and more pure than ever before, Dostal said.
Justin Thalheimer, social worker and program manager at Otsego County Community Services’ chemical dependency clinic, said he believes the local heroin problem is no different than it was a year ago, but has been more publicized because of recent heroin-related celebrity deaths.
“This isn’t new,” Thalheimer said. “It’s a shame that awareness is only increasing now because of celebrity deaths, when there have been deaths locally too.”
Robinson said most heroin-related deaths occur because individuals who have overdosed often stop breathing. He said heroin is a central nervous system depressant, causing blood pressure and heart rates to plummet.
Robinson said in the six months that he has worked at Fox Hospital, he has not seen any heroin-related deaths, but sees heroin overdoses very frequently. He said the drug Narcan, which can temporarily reverse the effects of heroin, is commonly given in the emergency room to overdose patients. Robinson said some facilities are now making Narcan available for medical first-responders to give to patients who have overdosed. The problem with Narcan, Robinson said, is that its effects only last for 15 to 20 minutes.
Thalheimer, who said more than 35 percent of the patients he sees at the clinic are heroin users, agreed with Dostal that prescription drugs are often a gateway to heroin.
“Nobody starts with heroin. I would say 95 percent of heroin users start on pills after an injury or surgery or that they had easy access to,” Thalheimer said. “Most users are afraid of the needle initially, but they get to the point where they are trying to maintain, just trying not to get dope-sick.”
Thalheimer said ‘dope-sick’ refers to the negative symptoms users experience when going through heroin withdrawal. He said users describe it as “the worst flu you’ve ever experienced.”
Although heroin can be fatal on its own, Dostal said, a new type of heroin is circulating that is particularly deadly. Heroin laced with fentanyl, a powerful opiate, is becoming popular, she said.
Dostal said the synthetic opiate mixed with heroin is a particularly deadly combination, and can kill a person in one dose. She said it is a fact that fentanyl-laced heroin is being used in New York state.
Business Insider said Monday that fentanyl-laced heroin could have a hand in the recent death of Hoffman. Hoffman, 46, was found dead in his Manhattan apartment Sunday morning, according to the Associated Press. Police are investigating the incident as a suspected heroin overdose.
Hoffman’s body was found surrounded by unused syringes, a charred spoon, various prescription medications and at least four dozen small packets stamped with the ace of hearts or ace of spades, branding used in the heroin world, the AP said. Samples from each of the packets were found to contain heroin, but authorities are further investigating whether the drug was laced with anything else, such as fentanyl, the AP said.
Fentanyl, which is roughly 100 times more powerful than morphine, has been popping up in heroin across the nation, particularly in the Northeast, according to the wire service, which reported that 22 people in western Pennsylvania died last month from suspected overdoses of fentanyl-laced heroin. Fentanyl-heroin has also been recently found in New York City and Long Island.
Dostal said, when it comes to drugs, what happens downstate eventually happens upstate.
Lt. Douglas Brenner, of the Oneonta police department, agreed, saying heroin is the biggest hard core drug problem locally.
Officials said the number of felony drug arrests in Delaware County increased by 223 percent in 2013. During the year, the Sheriff’s Department in Delhi put to work a new K-9 unit German shepherd, Ozzie, to assist in drug investigations, and investigators seized approximately 1,000 packets of heroin. Many arrests were made involving the sale of heroin and prescription drugs in the villages of Stamford, Walton, Sidney and Franklin, including the arrest of Edgar Joe Montes, a drug kingpin who directed a major trafficking ring from the Bronx to Otsego County between Jan. 1 and Oct. 1, 2011.
Brenner said there is a definite pipeline that provides the Oneonta area with heroin.
“Sometimes it comes from downstate and sometimes it comes from mid-state, like Syracuse,” Brenner said.
Brenner said he does not see heroin as much of a problem within the local college crowd, but rather with locals and individuals who move to Oneonta from other areas. He said the Oneonta police have recorded six heroin-related arrests this year. In the Oneonta area, there are both heroin users and dealers, Brenner said.
On Thursday, three Oneonta men were arrested by Oneonta city police as a result of an investigation into local drug trafficking. Police confiscated $700 in cash and 146 bags of heroin with a street value of more than $3,600. The men were arrested after leaving Motel 88 on Chestnut Street, where two of the men were living.
Brenner said heroin-related charges in Oneonta range from misdemeanor possession charges to A1 or A2 seventh-degree felonies for sale of the drug. A press release from the Otsego County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday provided an example of such a serious offense.
According to the release, Stephanie Lynne Whitehead, 22, of Oneonta, Cody Leslie Carter Barnes, 28, of Oneonta, and Kquan “Paris” Brockington, 28, of Schenectady, were arrested Friday for distributing heroin and other illegal substances.
According to Otsego deputies, the investigation revealed that Brockington, a two-time convicted felon, would bring drugs to Oneonta, where convicted felon Cody Barnes would broker drug deals for him. Brockington was charged with seventh-degree criminal possession of heroin, third-degree criminal possession of heroin with intent to sell, fourth-degree conspiracy and two other drug and weapon-related felonies, and faces up to 25 years in prison because of his two previous felony convictions.
The release said Otsego deputies and investigators, DEA Special Agents, Oneonta police and state parole officers searched the Chestnut Street home of Whitehead and Barnes and found 43 glassine envelopes containing heroin with an Oneonta street value of $1,075, along with cocaine, Adderall, Xanax and containers of chemicals commonly used to cut heroin.
Barnes was charged with third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, third-degree criminal possession of a weapon, fourth-degree conspiracy, seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, and second-degree criminal use of drug paraphernalia. He faces up to 12 years in prison. Whitehead was charged with seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and fourth-degree conspiracy, and faces up to four years in prison.
All three individuals were remanded to the Otsego County Correctional Facility. Barnes’ bail was set at $25,000 and Whitehead’s was set at $10,000. Brockington was sent without bail. They are all scheduled to return to the Oneonta City Court at a later date, the release said.
Thalheimer said about 50 percent of the patients he sees in the chemical dependency clinic come in of their own volition, wanting to get help.
“Heroin doesn’t discriminate,” Thalheimer said. “If you can get addicted to prescription drugs, you can get addicted to heroin. It’s a drug that affects really good people, shifting their values and making them do things they normally wouldn’t, like lie to their families.”
According to Thalheimer, patients at the chemical dependency clinic may undergo medical-assisted treatment or may be sent to a local rehab, such as the one at UHS Delaware Valley Hospital in Walton.
Despite the resurgence of heroin in the area, Thalheimer and Dostal expressed hope. Dostal said LEAF is working on preparing a community forum for the late spring to publicly address the problem. She said many local organizations, including the Oneonta police and Thalheimer’s office, have already gotten on board. She said she hopes the forum can further raise awareness of the problem.
“Personally, my heart breaks for Hoffman,” Dostal said, “particularly because he had previously been sober for 23 years. What LEAF does is deal with the underlying problems that make people more vulnerable to addictions, and if the forum can raise awareness of these problems and the local heroin crisis, maybe we can save a life.”
Thalheimer said he is looking forward to the forum and is glad that awareness is being raised. He said he remains hopeful for the area.
“Although every addictions counselor probably wishes their job would eventually become obsolete, someone has to provide people with help,” Thalheimer said, “and we really want to do that as much as possible.”