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The sad and frightening increase in the number of young people who are turning to heroin because it is becoming more difficult to obtain prescription painkillers clearly demonstrates the need for more treatment centers and programs.

That need should translate into a priority for government and social service agencies.

As News staff writers Maki Becker and Tom Precious reported, treatment counselors and police have seen a huge increase in heroin addiction in Buffalo and across the state as people once addicted to prescription painkillers such as oxycontin and hydrocodone move away from those drugs.

The irony here is that a part of the reason for the precipitous rise in heroin addiction stems from the crackdown on prescription opioid abuse. Physicians and pharmacists have been less willing to write and fill prescriptions for painkillers since the State Legislature passed a law last year creating a system to track potentially addictive drugs. The law should be fully implemented in the coming year.

This page joined treatment experts, parents and some in law enforcement who supported the new Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing Act, or I-STOP. It creates an important statewide online database that will enable doctors and pharmacists to track, in real time, narcotic drug prescriptions. The law, designed to reduce over-prescribing of painkillers, has its critics. But the frightening number of adolescents and young people addicted to opioids – which has claimed many lives in Western New York – demanded action.

So, too, does this latest threat from the increase in heroin addiction.

With prescription painkillers becoming scarce and expensive – $30 to $60 per pill – it is easy to figure out why an addict might opt for a $10 bag of heroin that offers two hits. And, unlike pharmacies, drug dealers make their products readily available.

The increase in heroin seized during arrests over the past three years speaks to the problem. The Erie County Central Police Services crime lab tested 499 samples in 2010; that jumped to 1,451 last year.

The state Attorney General’s Office has taken appropriately aggressive action in using the state’s “drug kingpin” laws to go after heroin traffickers. The office also has stepped up efforts aimed at doctors writing illegal prescriptions. And the Drug Enforcement Agency, which teamed up last week with the Buffalo Police Department and other local law enforcement to crack down on street-level heroin, is working to keep innocent citizens safe.

But these important law enforcement efforts need to be balanced with treatment options to reduce the demand for narcotics. Intensive, costly treatment may be a hard sell in difficult economic times for local and state governments, but that cost pales in comparison to the costs of doing nothing about addiction.