Heroin arrests in St. Lawrence County skyrocket
By JIMMY LAWTON
St. Lawrence County’s Drug Task Force has seen a dramatic shift from a major prescription opioid problem to rampant heroin abuse in the last five years.
The task force has investigated more than 50 heroin-related cases in each of the past three years, compared with none in 2010 and just four in 2011.At the same time, there has been a massive reversal in prescription opiates investigations– dropping to just one case in both 2014 and 2015 after peaking at 41 cases in 2011.
The drug task force involves all St. Lawrence County police agencies, but is led by the St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff Kevin Wells says it’s easy to see the shift from prescription drugs to heroin in the past five years.
“You will see the change from opiate to heroin as the prescription drug availability dried up for several reasons,” St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin Wells said.
In 2010, the task force dealt with 12 opiate-related cases that led to 14 felony charges. That year, the task force dealt with no heroin related cases.
In 2011, the task force investigated 41 opiate cases resulting in 39 felony charges, while making just three felony charges in four heroin cases.
By 2012, drug use began to shift away from prescription drugs and toward heroin. That year, the task force investigated 14 opiate cases that led to nine felony and two misdemeanor charges. Investigators also dealt with 15 heroin cases that resulted in three felony and two misdemeanor arrests.
Since then, prescription opiate cases declined, while heroin cases skyrocketed. In 2013, the task force investigated just six opiate-related cases with only four felony charges issued. That same year, the task force investigated 57 heroin related cases resulting in 11 felonies and 12 misdemeanors.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the spike in heroin arrests becomes even more apparent. The drug task force dealt with 52 heroin related cases and just one opiate case. That same year, the task force issued 160 felony and 31 misdemeanor charges in heroin related cases.
Sheriff Wells said the number of arrests shown in 2015 are somewhat skewed as the charges resulted long-term investigations, but the there is no question that heroin investigations are rising, while prescription drug arrests are declining.
“The 2015 numbers are due to the long-term investigation and related cases,” he said.
It is clear from the data that the prescription drug problem faced by the county in 2010 has morphed into what state officials and some local police chiefs are calling a heroin epidemic.
Acting Massena Police Chief Adam Love explained the phenomenon in a recent interview. He says heroin use is rampant and often begins with use of prescription drugs like Oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and fentanyl.
“People start off on prescription opiates. They aren’t as afraid of them. But those can cost $80 for one pill, heroin is a lot cheaper so then they switch to that,” he said.
Love said that the drug problem is so bad in Massena his officers are routinely called to pick up used hypodermic needles.
St. Lawrence County isn’t alone. Similar increases in heroin use have been reported in Buffalo and Syracuse. Heroin use is also on the rise across the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47,055 people in the United States lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2014.
Sixty-one percent of those deaths involved heroin, and since 2010, deaths resulting from overdoses of the drug have tripled, the report says.
According to a CDC report drug-related overdose deaths in St. Lawrence County averaged between 6.8 and 8.1 from 2002 to 2014.
Unfortunately solid local data is not available because St. Lawrence County does not track heroin and opiate related deaths, according to Freedom of Information Request response from the county health department.
The State Health Department has also failed to respond with numbers showing the number of deaths from heroin and prescription opiates.
However, a county employee was able to confirm at least nine opioid related deaths in 2015. Even with the incomplete data this represents a rise over previous data.
The epidemic is gaining steam with some lawmakers. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has called on the CDC to provide guidance to doctors who prescribe opiates.
“Part of this epidemic can be attributed to medical providers over-prescribing opioids, and some people with acute pain may be at a heightened risk for addiction because they haven’t had previous exposure to these powerful narcotics,” she said.
In New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and North Country legislators have worked to raise awareness of Naloxone, a nasal spray that can save the lives of overdose victims.
Meanwhile, an Ithaca mayor has suggested opening a supervised legal heroin injection facility to reduce rates of overdoses and the spread of infectious disease. Similar sites have been opened in European countries as well as a facility located in Vancouver, Canada.