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April 16, 2014

Local forum to focus on heroin epidemic

By Mark Boshnack Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — The growing local, state and national problem of heroin use will be the focus of an upcoming forum in Oneonta.

State Sen. James L. Seward, R-Milford, announced Tuesday that he will be hosting a local meeting of the Joint Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid (opiate) Addiction on April 28. It will take place from 9:30 a.m. to noon in the Hunt Union Ballroom at the State University College at Oneonta.

“Heroin use has reached epidemic proportions,” Seward said. “Lives are being lost, our public healthcare system is being overburdened, and law enforcement resources are being stretched thin. Heroin is infiltrating all social, economic, and geographic sectors of our state, and we need to take definitive action to halt this ugly trend.”

Seward’s forum is one of 12 being held around the state to gather information with the goal of coming up with solutions by the end of the legislative sessions in June, Seward said.

The forum, that will focus on heroin, will bring together local experts dealing with all facets of the issue. Experts in substance abuse and treatment, law enforcement, municipal officials, and individuals personally affected by heroin and opioid abuse will offer testimony. The public will also have an opportunity to express their views and offer real-life examples of the damages caused by drug abuse.

The rise in heroin use and the deadly effects of the drug are well documented, Seward said. A 2012 federal survey on drug use and health reported that the number of people who said they used heroin in the past 12 months rose from 373,000 people in 2007 to 669,000 people in 2012.

Julie Dostal, executive director of the LEAF Council on Alcoholism and Addiction, said the recent increase is so new that her statistics don’t yet reflect it, but she knows that will soon change.

Dostal said the increase appears to be an unintended consequence of a law passed by the state legislature, effective Aug. 27, 2013. The law, called the Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing — Prescription Monitoring System, or I-STOP/PMP, was written to address the overprescription of legal controlled substance painkillers, she said said. It includes information that allows doctors to evaluate their patients’ treatment with controlled substances and determine whether there may be abuse or non-medical use.

However, she said, the law has been so effective that addicts are forced to make difficult choices. They can go through withdrawal and get sick, go into recovery, or try to find drugs on the street, she said, and if they take the latter path, they might find that heroin is cheaper than buying pills.

Heroin can be smoked, snorted, ingested or injected. But like other opiates, heroin over time requires more to have the same effect.

Dostal said she will be at the forum, and will probably talk about the importance of raising awareness in the community and working hard at prevention.

Normally, that means creating an environment where people don’t use the drug. But the problem has gotten so big, so quickly, “we are trying to prevent people from dying” and help get them into recovery, she said.

Justin Thalheimer, the program manager at Otsego County Addiction Recovery Services, also is scheduled to attend the forum. The growing problem with heroin use can be seen in the change in clientele his agency serves, he said. Historically, his agency has had about 125 to 140 active clients.

From Feb. 1 to April 15, 2013, about 26 percent of the patients the agency saw had problems with heroin. But for the same period this year, more than 38 percent were affected by the drug. In comparison, those dealing with alcohol abuse remained relatively stable at about 38 percent, Thalheimer said.

Statistically, it’s extremely rare for people using drugs to start with heroin, he said. He agreed that the increase appears to be a consequence of the I-STOP legislation, which has otherwise been very valuable.

Many who use heroin start with a legitimate injury in which opiates, a narcotic pain reliever, are prescribed. Heroin can be the next step for people who can’t get a prescription, he said. When users find that it can take 10 illegal prescription pills, costing from $5 to $20 each, to get the same effect as a bag of heroin that could cost $20, many opt for heroin, Thalheimer said.

People can start out using it in a variety of ways, he said, including smoking or snorting. They often get their first injection from someone else, but they overcome that reluctance over time, he said.

Thalheimer said he was hopeful that the forum will lead to legislation that addresses the whole problem.

Delaware County Undersheriff Craig DuMond said he will also be in attendance. Delaware County, like other counties in the area, has struggled with the issue over the last couple of years, he said.

As the I-STOP registry curbed legal painkiller prescriptions, people who had an addiction often turned to heroin, which remained readily available, he said. As a result, crime increased as people did whatever was necessary to pay for their addiction. Current numbers on arrests were not available Tuesday.

DuMond said his agency recently has been forming a county task force.

“We are all struggling with the same issues,” he said, and a solution involves, law enforcement, treatment and education services.

“We are not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” he said. “We often treat the symptoms, and not the disease.”

DuMond added that more has to be done to educate people about what they can do, including getting treatment earlier and educating young people about the dangers of opiates.

“We have to treat addicts like addicts, while keeping sentences harsh for dealers,” he said.

Seward will lead the Oneonta task force forum, and will be joined by state Sen. Phil Boyle, R-Suffolk, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and chairman of the special task force.

The recently enacted 2014-15 state budget included $2.45 million for initiatives to provide prevention, treatment and addiction services to address the growing problems of heroin and opiate abuse. In addition to the creation of the task force, the senate passed legislation in March authorizing health care professionals to increase public access to Narcan/Naloxone which, if administered in time, can prevent an overdose death, Seward said.

“It is important that we formulate a multi-prong strategy that will break the stranglehold heroin has on so many people in our society,” Seward said. The series of statewide forums, featuring a diverse group of stakeholders, will play a vital role as “we develop our line of attack against this growing epidemic.”