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Local prevention advocates, police speak out on new county initiative to fight heroin addiction

Days after Suffolk County took steps to increase its arsenal in the ongoing war against drugs, local prevention advocates, while applauding the move, say more needs to be done.

On Monday, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced a new, countywide model to treat people addicted to heroin and other opiates with the extended-release drug naltrexone, which was recently approved by the FDA, and to make available enhanced substance abuse treatment throughout the county.

Susan Toman, executive director of the Guidance Center in Southold, said she agreed with Bellone’s approach. “We need to come up with long term sustainable solutions, and engaging the stakeholders in the community will reduce the number of substance abuse and addictions.”

Toman added that the new drug treatment, using naltrexone or vivitrol for prisoners as well as people undergoing court-ordered treatment, gives those individuals and their families a “fighting chance at receiving the message of recovery, to becoming educated to recovery skills, and time away from the substance.

“It works by blocking the opioid receptors in the brain and therefore blocking the effects of heroin and other opioids, she said. “It has also helped to reduce or prevent cravings.”

Narcan has “saved young people’s lives across the county,” she said.

Prevention is key, Toman added. “Our resources spent on prevention are resources well spent in preserving our youth, their futures, and our communities.”

Other prevention advocates believe prevention needs to start early and focus on alcohol.

“Increasing availability of treatment and treatment options in both Suffolk County and New York State is a great start,” said Felicia Scocozza, executive director of the Riverhead Community Awareness Program, Inc. “But we must increase support of community-based prevention efforts which have been proven successful in communities across the country. The best way to prevent heroin use among youth is to prevent alcohol use among youth.”

Early experimentation and regular abuse of alcohol among youth, she said, is directly linked to subsequent prescription drug abuse and heroin use.

“Heroin use gets a lot of attention and over the past few years has been referred to as the ‘heroin epidemic,’ but almost half of our 10th grade students and over half of our 12th grade students report drinking alcohol in the past 30 days. Many adults consider this no big deal, kids just having fun. But according to the Centers for Disease Control, 90 percent of underage drinking is binge drinking; youth drink very different than adults do. When approximately 5,000 young people per year die from alcohol-related causes and youth under 21 visit the emergency room 189,000 times per year for alcohol-related injuries, I would say that this is the real epidemic.”

As for heroin, Scocozza said among Riverhead teens, while historically, there has been relatively low heroin use, “There has been a slight increase over the past several years. For example, among 12th graders who responded to our survey in 2014, use of heroin in the past 30 days rose from 0 percent in 2008 to 0.5 percent; lifetime use rose from 0.6 percent in 2008 to 3.1 percent in 2014. Given the direct relationship between prescription drug abuse and subsequent heroin use, it is important to note the dramatic reduction in prescription drug abuse over the same time period: among 12th graders, 30-day abuse of prescription narcotics dropped from 7.5 percent in 2008 to 2.1 percent in 2014 and lifetime abuse dropped from 12.5 percent in 2008 to 7.4 percent in 2014. Given all of the work CAP and our coalition partners have done to bring attention to this relationship and reduce access to illegal prescription drugs in the community, we hope to see a comparable reduction in heroin use when we repeat our survey in 2016.”

Lori Shore, who lives in Mattituck and is also the executive director of the Retreat of Lancaster County, a substance abuse treatment center, said her reaction to Bellone’s new initiative was ‘Finally? Are they kidding?’ We need more than that. I’m glad, at least that they admit and recognize this is a problem.”

Shore said while shopping locally, she can spot drug deals taking place in stores and in parking lots. “Why can’t the police see this? I see them sitting in the parking lot. It makes me crazy. They should be doing so much more.”

Heroin, Shore said, is an issue locally. One young man, 22, she said, died of an overdose just before Christmas on the North Fork, but denial and shame, guilt and the stigma of heroin addiction have led his family to remain quiet on the tragedy.

“Silence equals death,” she said.

North Fork teens, she said, experiment with marijuana. “That’s become acceptable. Kids say, ‘It’s just marijuana,'” she said. “But we know that marijuana is a gateway drug to heroin and more.”

Shore said she’d like to see everyone in the health field, as well as police, ambulance and fire department first responders all trained in NARCAN. “We need more education so when and if the crisis happens we already have the information and parents know what to do.”

Drug-sniffing dogs, she added, should be brought into local schools without no advance warning to students.

Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said he believes Southold has experienced the same escalation in heroin usage as the rest of Suffolk County is experiencing. “It has become the new drug of choice amongst substance abusers. Where we got accustomed to crack cocaine being sold and used in the 80s and 90s, we are now seeing heroin emerging in its place. It has become such a concern that government officials are working with law enforcement in both educating young adults as to the dangers of its use to implementing the NARCAN programs that police agencies throughout Suffolk County are participating in to physically reverse heroin overdose victims.”

As for Shore’s claim that drugs are sold “outside of local stores, I’m sure that is possible, but I would urge anyone that did witness this to call our department with such information,” Flatley said.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said while statistics were not immediately available on heroin-related crimes and deaths, he applauds Bellone’s new efforts. “It’s a definite problem. I think it’s great that there’s an alternate treatment.”

In April, New York State Senator Ken LaValle, Assemblyman Fred Thiele and Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo announced  the formation of a new Heroin Addiction Legislative Task Force, or H.A.L.T, with a focus on identifying causes and solutions to fight the growing heroin epidemic.

The legislators’ efforts led to the passage of multiple bills last year that include: new programs and insurance reforms to improve treatment options for individuals suffering from heroin and opioid addiction; measures to strengthen penalties and put in place additional tools for law enforcement to crack down on the distribution of illegal drugs; provisions to ensure the proper and safe use of naloxone, an overdose antidote; and support for enhanced public awareness campaigns to prevent drug abuse. The bills were subsequently signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.