BY MICHAEL RICONDA
WEST NYACK – Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe and County Executive Ed Day announced on Monday that the county would pursue a three-pronged action plan to combat recent surges in heroin and prescription drug abuse.
According to Zugibe, the plan would integrate targeted enforcement of the law to weed out drug traffickers, treatment through both legal and medical channels and an education campaign for prosecutors, law enforcement, educators and students.
“We’re talking about collaboration, we’re talking about working more effectively, and we’re talking about doing our jobs, the same jobs we did before but more effectively,” Zugibe said.
Zugibe explained the plan will involve an individual focus with heavier involvement from medical or law enforcement professionals depending upon whether an individual in the drug trade is motivated by addiction or profit.
In the case of those who traffic outside the context of personal use, targeted enforcement will involve law enforcement at local, county, state and federal levels. Data sharing will be coordinated to allow information to flow between law enforcement, physicians and hospitals, victims’ families, the Rockland County Medical Examiner, social media and intelligence agencies.
For those who do not sell drugs or do so only to feed their own habits, a focus on treatment will be pursued and law enforcement will serve in only a supportive role. Zugbibe explained that in the past, the drug courts have seen some success in lowering recidivism rates, but require additional screening procedures to assist those who might have fallen through the cracks and wound up in the criminal justice system without treatment.
“It’s effective once you get them in there but oftentimes we’re waiting too long,” Zugibe argued. “These individuals have been through the court system for many years before they finally get into the [treatment] system. Many of them are never identified.”
According to Ruth Bowles of the Rockland Council on Alcoholism and Other Drug Dependence Inc.(RCADD), recovery efforts often fail due to inconsistencies in treatmennt, particularly in managed care where waiting lists and non-coverage by insurers can result in service denials in even emergency cases.
“There is not sufficient treatment,” Bowles said. “There is not a continuum of treatment that will sustain sobriety for these people.”
To address users only tangentially linked to the drug trade, the DA’s office will continue to seek alternatives to incarceration. Prosecutors will also interact with addiction specialists at the Department of Health, Nyack Hospital, Good Samaritan Hospital, the RCADD, and other agencies to inform and assist addicts and determine the appropriate options for individuals brought in by law enforcement.
The DA’s Office will also coordinate “trends and treatment” training through the DEA, RCADD and the New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services. The training will show prosecutors, local law enforcement and school districts how to recognize warning signs of opioid abuse and connect addicts to treatment and prevention services.
In recent years, Rockland has been hit hard by an influx of heroin and prescription painkillers, much of which flow north from distribution hubs in New York City and Paterson, New Jersey. 16 individuals died of overdose deaths in Rockland County this year alone.
There has also been a surge in the number of those seeking treatment for heroin, with New York’s Open Data website showing 67 individuals in opioid treatment clinics in 2012, an increase from 35 individuals in 2011 and 50 individuals in 2011.
County drug courts have also been the subject of some renewed interest, though their use appears to have dropped in recent years. According to the Rockland DA’s 2013 report, 60 individuals were admitted to Rockland’s felony drug courts in 2013, down from 100 in 2012. The county’s relatively new misdemeanor drug court saw a similar drop from 47 referrals in 2012 to 20 in 2013.
Though the number of referrals has gone down, successful completion of the felony drug court program has gone up, jumping 75 percent in 2013.
Beyond the numbers, the heroin epidemic has hit home in not only low-income areas but in middle and upper-class areas as well. According to Day, a collaborative effort is necessary to address the nuances and tragedies of opiate abuse which now cuts across socioeconomic boundaries which were once believed to be impervious.
“The reality is that I have been to a number of funerals already where we have buried young people,” Day said. “Some of those young people are children of friends of mine. Some are kids that over the 20 years of coaching I have coached.”
For RCADD board member Michael Zall, the difficulties of opiate treatment are particularly painful. Zall’s son died of an overdose last year after over 20 years of prescription painkiller abuse. Zall’s argument is that not only must treatment be available, but that such options must be spoken about openly and without fear or stigma.
“You have to get out, talk to your neighbors, talk to your friends because they all have the same problem except they are not talking about it.”