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The Plague That Kills People Just Like Us

Spend any time at all with Claudia Peters Ragni, and you will be terribly frightened. Not that the tall, thin Ragni is scary. In fact, her high-energy personality and depth of knowledge are quite reassuring. But her message is the stuff of nightmares.

“Eighty percent of people addicted to drugs and alcohol are high functioning, have jobs, drive cars, have families,” said Ragni, who heads the Kenneth Peters Center for Recovery, an outpatient treatment program with offices in Syosset and Hauppauge. “I have never known anyone who didn’t know someone who fit this description.”

True, especially with alcohol. (Ragni’s father, Ken Peters, for whom the center is named, was an alcoholic who quit drinking cold-turkey after years of hard-core addiction.)

But what I found especially scary was her discussion of heroin, and how on Long Island, the drug has taken hold with people who are far from the stereotypical strung-out junkie in the dark, trash-filled doorway. According to Ragni, who has been in the field for nearly 30 years and has won numerous awards for her work, this most fearful of drugs is now well ensconced among people like us and like our kids.

“Now, 55 percent of my patients are heroin addicts who are 25 and under,” she said.

How they get there is where the nightmares come in.

It typically starts with a raid on the family medicine cabinet, where prescription pain-killers such as Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicadin may be left over from a sore back or tooth extraction.

“It’s medicine, so it seems okay,” said Ragni.

But it’s not okay. Whether it comes from a major pharmaceutical company or a back-alley laboratory, an opiate is an opiate is an opiate.

“What makes opiates so bad is that they’re so good,” said Ragni.

That is, the sensation is so pleasurable that it’s hard to resist popping another tablet. And another. And another, until your body demands it, and you’re addicted.

To get more, adults often go their doctors, complaining of vague but excruciating pain. The prescription and its refills typically are covered by health insurance. And when that doctor balks at numerous refills, the user hops from physician to physician, looking for those who will write scripts for the opiates. This is known as “doctor shopping.”

Who are these addicts?

“A 44-year-old white male is the most common death from pain pills,” said Ragni. Again, not what you would think.

Young people aren’t as savvy about working the medical establishment, she said, and they hit the street to score their pain pills. The problem is, the pills are outrageously expensive.

“The 80mg Oxycontin is the gold standard,” she said. “And they cost $1 per milligram.”

That kind of money leads addicts to look for alternatives. Enter heroin, a powerful opiate that’s a good substitute and relatively cheap.

“About one-tenth the cost,” said Ragni.

The typical user starts out snorting the powder, promising him or herself to not cross the line into injecting. But the rush from snorting isn’t as powerful as it is from injecting, and …well, you know where this goes.

“These kids don’t want to be addicts,” said Ragni. “Nobody says, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a heroin addict.’ And while drugs and alcohol addiction hijacks the brain, heroin hijacks the soul. It’s amazing. It takes away hopes and dreams. These kids have nothing.”

As everyone knows, beating the addiction is very difficult. When heroin first snared a large number of people in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, treatment programs often involved 18 months of inpatient treatment.

These days, health insurance typically pays for just three days of inpatient treatment and a handful of outpatient sessions with a counselor, such as Ragni.

“Insurance companies are not giving long enough treatment to get the kids off heroin,” she said. “These kids are in hell.”

Hell is a very dangerous place.

“Every mother with a picture of a dead kid will tell you stories about how they couldn’t get into treatment,” Ragni said.

Next week, we’ll look at why.

John Owens is editor in chief of Anton Community Newspapers. Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it