BY MICHAEL RICONDA
VALLEY COTTAGE – It’s the high that can turn a life into a nightmare in a matter of weeks.
Opiates. Specifically, heroin.
Opium has been one of mankind’s cunning enemies for centuries, as millions of souls have seen their dreams turn to ash and their very minds into demons, as the drug often makes men and women act more like mad animals than people.
As former Rockland Psychiatric Center patient and famed poet Allen Ginsberg explained over 60 years ago in his seminal work “Howl,” “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the [censored] streets at dawn look for an angry fix.”
The casualty list in Rockland County is longer than we know. Police have shared with media the stark reality that most heroin and opiate overdoses go unreported to the public.
In Rockland County and around the nation, concern is rising fast over the growing rate of opiate use.
Today’s common belief is the opiate problem hit a new wave over a decade ago, when doctors’ scripts for opiate-based pain killers became popular. Eventually many became dependent on the pills, and a significant percentage progressed on to heroin, a drug that only a few years earlier had been stigmatized to the point of total avoidance by most Americans.
Despite its deadly and insanity-inducing effects, that stigma has been weakened. One major media report said middle-aged suburban women are the fastest growing new group of heroin users, hardly a demographic traditionally prone to hardcore drug abuse.
After years of an increasing toll opiates have been taking on society authorities have now finally spawned an aggressive statewide discussion of means to reduce harm from the resurgent problem. A panel discussion chaired by State Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) on May 27 was one of 17 forums held statewide to educate the public and gather input on the growing problem of opiate dependency.
The forums are part of a larger New York State Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction as a lead-up to a legislative package targeting heroin and prescription drug abuse. According to Carlucci, the talks are meant primarily to encourage collaboration and cross boundaries between different organizations.
“We’ve been having these hearings throughout the state to really get everybody in the same room to talk about the problems of opiate and heroin addiction to make sure we get all areas of the community onboard to figure out how we can solve these problems.”
Though all aspects of the fight against heroin addiction, one of the most notable items brought up by both panelists and public commentators was a lack of insurance coverage for substance abuse treatment programs. One of the panelists, WOH Solutions Vice President of Government Relations Lisa Wickens, argued her own son’s experiences in recovery demonstrated profound gaps in coverage.
Wickens’ son went through multiple relapses and overdoses, but her state-provided insurance refused coverage. She also experienced the suicide of a stepson due to his own struggle with substance abuse and stressed insurance companies should be held accountable for treatment.
“With the best insurance from the state government, they would not get my son help,” Wickens stated. “That’s just a glimpse of what it’s like.
Vice President of Outpatient Services Daytop Village Dr. Carol Slattery agreed insurance companies were partly responsible for a lack of affordable recovery services. Slattery explained insurance providers seldom accommodate addicts except in cases with aggravating factors such as long-term problems, alcohol abuse or mental illness.
“They want you to relapse at least five times,” Slattery said. “We have a very hard time getting patients in.”
Attendees agreed, with many arguing one of the biggest obstacles to treatment were providers who refuse coverage of outpatient programs. According to State Sen. Phil Boyle, who co-chaired the forum, mandates for providers are being considered as part of the legislative package.
Drug abuse patterns have changed in recent years. As prescription painkillers become more popular, regulations on prescribing physicians became tighter and over-prescribing of meds became more difficult.
However, many claim this has led to a disturbing resurgence in the popularity of heroin. According to Judge Charles Apotheker, a non-panelist who runs the county’s drug court, the inaccessibility of affordable prescription opiates may have forced addicts to seek out the cheaper alternative.
“I have a feeling that might have led to this movement to heroin because it’s a lot easier to get,” Apotheker said.
Michael Zall, a panelist whose son Jeremy who died from an overdose on prescription drugs, went further by calling for greater scrutiny of pharmaceutical industry practices, the development of new, non-addictive painkillers and the industry’s sponsorship of treatment and prevention programs.
After describing the circumstances around his son’s death, Zall stated that as providers of potentially lethal substances, pharmaceutical giants must bear part of the burden of treatment and prevention.
“Like the tobacco industry, it’s time for the pharmaceutical industry to contribute to the treatment of drug addiction,” Zall said.
On the ground level, the heroin problem primarily remains a law enforcement matter. Sheriff Louis Falco explained one of the challenges of combating heroin was addressing its spread to increasingly broader demographics, including teens, young adults and older professionals in relatively affluent areas.
In this sense, Falco argued the crisis was broader than just Rockland and encompassed far more people than those who fit the stereotypical image of a heroin addict.
“It’s not only our county, but also surrounding counties, New Jersey, and Connecticut,” Falco said. “It’s not only here. It’s everywhere in New York State.”
As the character of the epidemic has changed, so has the drug trade. Rockland Drug Task Force Director Christopher Goldrick explained corner dealers were no longer the norm and both “open-air” drug buys in public places and technology are now the target of police investigations.
Law enforcement officials on the panel called for more support to monitor an increasingly sophisticated traffic in drugs, but an emphasis was also placed by most panelists on education and de-stigmatization of addicts. Zall called for “addiction to come out of the closet” so addicts can receive treatment free from scorn.
Part of a comprehensive solution might also come from education and improved treatment methods. Panelists and attendees lauded programs which included families in treatment and did not merely go through a repetitive cycle of group therapy sessions.
The general attitude seemed wary of old models of legal penalties and treatment and toward a new approach which includes not only police but also educators, students, family, friends, medical professionals. Wickens explained law enforcement was just one tactic among many when addressing substance abuse or the larger market for legal and illegal drugs.
“We can keep arresting dealers and filling up jails, but that is not the solution,” Wickens said. “It has to be comprehensive.”
And one new weapon to prevent deaths many police departments now carry, including Clarkstown PD, are drugs that actually interrupt the effect of heroin overdoses, stabilizing the patient until they receive further care..