Last Saturday in Buffalo, shortly before she was to head out the door to work, a woman in her mid-20s stuck a needle into her skin and squeezed one last dose of heroin into her body, counselors say. She died soon after.
The woman, whose name is being withheld, is just the latest victim of what treatment counselors and police are seeing as a surge in heroin addiction in Buffalo and across the state, increasingly by people making the transition from prescription painkillers like oxycontin and hydrocodone.
The rise in the numbers of people using heroin, especially those under age 25, comes as two factors about painkillers collide: supply and cost. Doctors have become more conservative in dispensing the potentially addictive pills, anticipating a new state law that takes effect this year that cracks down on prescription-writing abuses. And as those pills become scarce, the prescription drugs are also much more expensive, easily fetching $30 to $60 per pill.
Enter heroin, a fellow opiate that experts say is not only cheap – $10 for a bag with two hits – but easily available.
Officials at the Erie County Central Police Services crime lab said they have seen a significant increase in the number of samples of heroin seized during arrests and raids over the past three years. In 2010, the lab was asked to test 499 samples of heroin. Last year, the number of samples tested nearly tripled to 1,451.
Senior Detective Alan Rozansky of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, who has worked narcotics for more than two decades, has seen firsthand the disturbing heroin trend in all kinds of communities.
“These people – they think they’re not a junkie if they take hydrocodone,” he said.
The heroin being produced is strong enough that it can be snorted, rather than injected, making the drug seem less scary. But law enforcement and treatment counselors say many addicts eventually end up shooting the drug for an even stronger high.
The rise in heroin abuse the past couple of years is inextricably linked to prescription drug abuse, police said. Over and over, authorities are hearing the same sad tale of addiction from the people they arrest. They start out on pills prescribed by doctors, then turn to the streets to find the same pills.
But the pills are expensive, up to $60 each, said Dale M. Kasprzyk, agent in charge of the regional Drug Enforcement Administration office in Buffalo. People who develop a tolerance for the drug start buying up to three a day.
“You can see how that becomes very costly,” he said.
That’s when many pill addicts turn to heroin.
The treatment community has noticed the phenomenon.
“If you are legally prescribed an opiate, there is no way that over a period of time you won’t become addicted to it,’’ said John Coppola, executive director of the New York Association of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers, who said the worsening heroin problem is being seen across the state. He said some people start out appropriately taking a drug, then get addicted and turn to heroin.
“It’s a logical sequence,” he said.
The graduation from painkillers to heroin is leaving a long line of victims.
Colleen Babcock watched her son travel the painful path from pills into a full-blown heroin addiction.
“If you met my son on the street, you’d think he was the greatest, most polite person who would do anything for anyone,” she said. “But when that drug took over, he was a totally different person.”
Law enforcers are tackling the problem on several fronts. The state Attorney General’s Office has been aggressively going after heroin traffickers with the state’s “drug kingpin” laws. The office is also taking aim at doctors writing illegal prescriptions.
Locally, the DEA last week teamed up with the Buffalo Police Department and other local law enforcement in a “street-level heroin interdiction program,” targeting heroin hot spots in the area. The agency also is getting ready to conduct a survey of prescription drug abusers to understand their sources of drugs.
State lawmakers are hoping to stem the tide of prescription drug abuse. Last year, they passed a law that will create a tracking system of potentially addictive drugs in order to block addicts from stocking up on painkillers by doctor- and pharmacy-shopping. It should be fully implemented in the coming year.
Treatment experts, parents and some in law enforcement support the new Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing Act, or I-STOP law. But in advance of the law, treatment officials say many area doctors already have curtailed writing prescriptions for addictive opiates, and some are sending patients to pain relief clinics if they want to obtain the drugs.
Additionally, drug treatment experts are worried that people already addicted will turn to the streets and begin using heroin instead. They say to prevent that from becoming an even more common phenomenon, there needs to be a more aggressive push to add new treatment beds for addicts.
“We waited eight years, and in that process, my daughter could have died,” one Buffalo-area father said of his journey to get his daughter into a local residential program after years of heroin and prescription painkiller addiction.
Experts around the state say that as recently as five years ago, about 20 percent of adolescents in treatment were trying to get off opiates, such as heroin. Today, the figure at many treatment facilities exceeds 70 percent.
Counselors see that as a need for more treatment facilities.
“Thank God I-STOP is finally coming. But there needs to be some provisions in place for the people who are going to need treatment, because they’re going to need help stopping,” said Paige Prentice, vice president of operations at Horizon Health Services, a drug treatment provider whose services include a 50-bed residential facility in Sanborn that takes in addicts from an eight-county region. The facility has a long waiting list of people needing the kind of intensive help that outpatient services can’t provide some heroin addicts.
Dr. Howard Hitzel, president of Lake Shore Behavioral Health, a Buffalo treatment provider, said he believes that over time, the I-STOP law will help reduce the heroin problem because it will reduce the access to prescription painkillers that serve as gateways to heroin. But, for now, he warned, there is a “bubble in time for kids who already have developed opiate dependencies who are going to find other means to feed their addictions.”
Parents of children with heroin addictions speak of the nightmares involved in getting treatment, especially inpatient care, in a system either overloaded or that appears not to take things seriously until addicts commit crimes to feed their opiate purchases.
Babcock, the Buffalo-area woman whose son is now in inpatient care for heroin addiction, said she, like many parents, thought he was only experimenting with lesser drugs as a teenager. But, then came the pills and then heroin.
“By the time you realize it’s not a phase, you are well into the throes of an addiction,’’ she said.
At Horizon Health, up to 75 people at any given time are on a waiting list trying to get into its residential facility. Now, parents and counselors say, state officials have tackled one part of the problem with the I-STOP law but need to take the next step to expand treatment offerings.
“We just don’t have enough treatment beds,” said Babcock. “The system should be easy to navigate when you’re trying to get help, like for diabetes, but it’s not.”