Written by Joe Rizza Friday, 31 July 2009 00:00
In 2007, there were 151 arrests due to offenses in which heroin was involved in Nassau County. In 2008, that number jumped to 211 and this year, the number is already up to 243 as of July 24, including 100 arrests Nassau Police made in February after a month-long heroin crackdown during which 50,000 bags of the drug were collected. The vast majority of those arrested are between the ages of 20 and 29.
Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi recognizes that there is enough objective evidence to say that a problem exists. Suozzi, along with many community members and elected officials, attempted to lay the groundwork to stem the tide of the troubling statistics by holding a heroin summit at the Theodore Roosevelt County Executive Building on Tuesday, July 28.
“In 2007 Nassau County experienced 27 deaths caused by heroin. In 2008, we saw a dramatic increase of nearly 75 percent in heroin overdose deaths. We had 46 deaths last year and we’re already on track to see more than that this year,” said Suozzi. “We have seen a significant increase in usage among 19- to 25-year-olds. It is cheaper and stronger than ever before. Even though we’re the safest place in the nation with over 500,000 people, we had four deaths caused by drunk drivers and 26 murders last year. That’s tragic enough. But losing almost four people a month to heroin overdoses is just not acceptable.”
The increased use of heroin is an issue that has received some attention. In December, Suozzi signed into law the “Natalie Ciappa Law, which requires law enforcement to notify school officials when an arrest is made for heroin possession and/or sale. The law, proposed by Nassau County Legislator Dave Mejias, is named after an 18-year-old resident of Massapequa who died of a heroin overdose at a party in June 2008.
“The impetus of my heroin notification law was the high level of denial at the local level,” Mejias said. “We must give parents the tools they need to parent effectively. When a student is infected with lice, parents receive a note home…no one tells them about a heroin arrest, no one has any idea that a child is down the black hole of addiction. Parents may not be aware that students are holding ‘pharm parties’ where the main attraction is prescription drugs kids have taken from the medicine cabinet at home. Abusing prescription drugs is a gateway to heroin use. We must be vigilant at home and monitor our children’s behavior.”
There have been multiple arrests either for sale or possession in Nassau County in enough communities to suggest that heroin use is fast becoming a widespread problem. According to statistics provided by the Nassau County Police Department, there have been 12 heroin arrests in West Hempstead, eight in Elmont and two in Franklin Square.
Heroin use and addiction is a complicated problem that can be looked at from different directions. In Nassau County, community organizations and nonprofit groups may offer services to combat addiction. In the Nassau County University Medical Center’s detox unit, those admitted for heroin use have grown in numbers, which suggests that more people are using the drug.
Suozzi suggests that people get into alcohol and drugs because sometimes they are trying to fill a void in their lives. The problem of heroin is getting attention because it’s readily available, relatively cheap and addictive.
However, it was mentioned that heroin addicts began using what are termed as “gateway drugs.” These drugs are sometimes prescribed for pain after people have surgery. These drugs include OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Codein and Darvon. Legislator Mejias mentioned the existence of “Pharm” parties in which young people search medicine cabinets in search of pharmaceuticals.
Dr. Constantine Ioannou of Nassau University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry said there is a genetic predisposition to drug addiction. A prescription drug taken by a person who is using it as a recreational drug can lead someone who is genetically susceptible to substance abuse down a dark path of purchasing hardcore drugs on the streets.
While heroin can have a devastating impact on an individual and families, it can also negatively impact communities. As Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said, in desperate times, people who are addicted do desperate things. Crimes such as burglaries often have ties to drugs. Residential burglaries in Nassau County are up 16.57 percent this year as opposed to last year, according to Nassau County Police crime statistics. Numerous bank robberies also come by suspects who are trying to support their drug addiction.
While there are efforts to enforce laws with respect to drug use, there are also efforts being made to prevent drug use through education. Suozzi, during the summit, suggested that perhaps those involved with the problems could combine efforts. The county executive mentioned forming a joint heroin task force to focus on prevention.
It was also suggested that prescription drugs be stored in a secure place. Those drugs that are no longer being taken as prescribed should be disposed of. Suozzi said the county would set up a program by which residents can dispose of drugs safely. A similar program was set up by the Town of North Hempstead, which set Saturday, June 6 as the first drop off day when town residents could drop off pharmaceuticals at the town’s STOP (Stop Throwing Out Pollutants) location on West Shore Road in Port Washington.