February 2016: Nonprofits Today

Nonprofits on front lines of heroin war

Bob Gorman

Bob Gorman

In her office at Pivot, Anita Seefried-Brown has created a collage with the faces of bright and promising young adults, all now dead from heroin and other opiate overdoses. One of the photos is of her late son, Herbie.
At Credo Community Center, Jim Scordo laments over the emotional toll heroin has inflicted on his staffers. They spend months helping addicts stay clean, building friendships and proclaiming each day as another small victory over addiction.

Months later the phone rings. The staffer’s heart collapses as the caller sadly reports that just last night heroin lured the recovering addict back for one last deadly hit.

And emergency room personnel and paramedics already know our new grim statistic: Jefferson County is now averaging one opioide-related death a month. If it weren’t for the use of Narcan by first responders, the number would be much higher.

Jefferson County Sherriff Colleen M. O’Neill and District Attorney Kristyna Mills will tell you that stopping heroin use is like trying to stop an incoming tide.

O’Neill’s mantra is the same one other law officers cite: “We are here to enforce the law, but we can’t arrest our way out of this situation.”

And Mills last year looked into the eyes of a woman arrested for prostitution and only saw heroin staring back. Instead of working to convict her, Mills asked a jury to see the woman as a victim. They did just that and convicted her pimp, Vandon Jones, of “sex trafficking.”

(The New York legal community considers the Jones conviction a pioneering case, which is legal speak for “nobody else dared to go first.” And that is understandable; while sex trafficking carries an attractive greater penalty than fostering prostitution, it also demands a much higher burden of proof.)

Jones, said Mills, knew the power of heroin. He knew that if he could control when a woman would get her next fix, he could control her next act. So he didn’t find prostitutes by looking for prostitutes.

“He would drive around Rochester looking for women who were already addicted to heroin,” said Mills.

Why opiate-abuse is blowing up right now is the result of a perfect storm. A generation has grown up being prescribed drugs for everything. And more people have experienced the wonders of modern pain-killing medicines as formerly rare surgeries — such as joint replacement — have become common.

So just as science has confirmed that some people are genetically predisposed to drug and alcohol addiction, we now have more drugs being ingested by more people whose brains are hardwired for addiction.

The increase in heroin use can also be charted with the implementation of New York’s I-Stop legislation from two years ago. Abusers of pain-medication were illegally getting the same prescription filled at several locations. The new law created a database for pharmacies to check first to eliminate double-dipping.

Pain-pill abusers, now stymied by technology, soon figured out that heroin would get the job done better and for less money than oxycontin.

Downstate drug dealers responded promptly and suddenly the law’s good intentions had paved a new road to hell, and its travelers arrive from every socio-economic class.

As the number of heroin users rises, the real kicker is this: There is no detox service in Jefferson County. Every Jefferson County user who wants out has to do just that: Get out of Jefferson County.

There is a detox unit at Canton-Potsdam Hospital, but according to Seefried-Brown the chances of getting in are slim: “Persons with opiate addictions are instructed to call the St. Lawrence Detox Center at 7:30 a.m. every morning to inquire if a bed will be available that day.”

And that’s how it is around the state. There are not enough treatment centers to go around.

So now what?

Led by Pivot, the recently formed Alliance for Better Communities is trying to dig the north country out of a hole. Several months ago, representatives of all substance abuse agencies, the health department and law enforcement began meeting as a steering committee. Everyone knows what the solution is; the only hold-up is finding a tree that grows money.

O’Neill has already committed her department to be part of the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative (PARRI), which was developed by the police department in Gloucester, Ma., and recently featured on “60 Minutes.” O’Neill says dealers will still be arrested, but her department is working to follow the PARRI mandate, which is to get addicts into treatment rather than get them behind bars.

And finding addicts is not a problem, says Mills. Heroin addicts who want treatment are committing crimes just to get arrested, thinking it’s the fastest way to a detox center. It isn’t, and that just adds to the logjam at the county jail.

The alliance is planning to apply for a state grant to develop a recovery and outreach center in Watertown, says Seefriend-Brown.

It is also trying to find a cadre of volunteers who will stay with addicts identified through PARRI until they can be lodged in a treatment center, which in some cases will be states away.

Heroin is a national issue, as evidenced by the fact President Obama worked that very word into last month’s State of the Union address. More local deaths are an assurity.

But the community can also be assured that some heavy lifting has begun by our nonprofits and governments. They all know that this problem will have to be resolved locally.

Robert D. Gorman is president and CEO of United Way of Northern New York. Contact him at bgorman@unitedway-nny.org or 788-5631. His column appears every other month in NNY Business.