A syringe of heroin
Source: AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck

About a year ago, a man and his son were out enjoying the scenic views of the Ithaca Falls. All was going well until they saw something startling — a used needle had been stabbed into the side of nearby tree. This story, told to me by Officer Jamie Williamson of the Ithaca Police Department, brought to light the fact that there is a heroin problem in Ithaca. 

What is Heroin?

“It is the Tasmanian devil of drugs,” Williamson said. “It destroys everything in its path and leaves behind it a path of wreckage.”

Heroin
This black sticky substance is another type of heroin, known as “black tar.” Source: The Associated Press.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, heroin is classified as a Schedule I drug, “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” Because of its nature, users build up a tolerance to it over time and have to use more of it to get the same effects. This makes the substance highly dangerous because an overdose can lead to death, as well as slow and shallow breathing, blue lips and fingernails, clammy skin, convulsions, or a coma.

While it can come in many different forms, the DEA said heroin is most commonly sold as white or brown powder, which can be smoked, snorted or melted down and injected. When taken, the user will experience a euphoric rush, followed by a paradoxical state of grogginess and wakefulness. Officer Williamson said a bag of heroin costs about $10–15 in the City of Ithaca. However, he also said he’s heard of people going through at least 20 bags in one day — that amounts to $200–300 per day.

The Sudden Spike

The national survey on drug use and health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has concluded, “… the numbers of persons with heroin dependence or abuse in 2011 (426,000) and 2012 (467,000) were approximately twice those in 2002 (214,000) and 2003 (189,000).” However, this is not just a broad-spectrum issue that can be ignored, as towns are also feeling it on a local level.

Media releases published by the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office have shown at least two incidents of large heroin busts within the last four months. Although these may give the illusion of being isolated incidents, Williamson has said otherwise.

“We have seen, yes, certainly, not just a marked increase or a noticeable increase — it is very much alarming,” Williamson said. “It’s reaching epidemic levels here in Ithaca.”

An Ithaca Journal article published Feb. 22, 2014, claims that there has been a 13 percent increase in the number of people seeking addiction treatment for heroin at the Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services since 2007, and a 22 percent increase in those seeking treatment for heroin and other drugs.

The big and obvious question is why is all of this happening? Unfortunately, Williamson said he isn’t sure. One speculation he had is because of the area’s opening and accepting community.

“With Ithaca being so wonderful and beautiful … it attracts people from all walks of life, which is wonderful. It adds to our diversity — not just diversity in terms of race, but the diverse group of people that come to Ithaca,” Williamson said. “All ages, all walks of life, all backgrounds … And unfortunately, what that means also is that those people bring their vices. With Ithaca being a liberal community, with it being a progressive community, with it being a community that is tolerant of people and their mistakes and embracing all of their wonderful and beautiful things, we don’t like to say it, but it’s a recipe for magic, but it’s also a recipe for disaster.”

Another factor Williamson said may be the cause of the heroin spike is the city’s economic prosperity. With two well-known, booming colleges, Cornell University and Ithaca College, being revenue makers for the area, the City of Ithaca has been more well off than other small cities in central New York. Williamson said the combination of economic stability and the community’s open attitude could also be a reason for the increase use and acceptance of heroin. However, these are only speculations. No one has a concrete reason for why the spike is occurring, only that it needs to be stopped.

The People Involved

Heroin_samhsa
Past Month and Past Year Heroin Use among Persons Aged 12 or Older: 2002-2012 Source: the SAMHSA

CEO of CARS William Rusen said the population that CARS has seen for heroin usage — which is currently the majority of its about 100 clients — has gotten much younger. “It’s a considerable difference in just five years where we go from an age that looks like something in the late 20s or early 30s to something that’s more like 18 to 23,” he said. However, Williamson believes the epidemic is hitting people of all age groups.

“We are getting calls for needles everywhere,” he said. “And the calls for needles, they don’t suggest any age group. We have needles down at The Commons, but we also have needles in our parks. Now, chances are, there are older folks in the parks — not many 18-year-olds hang out at Cass Park. There’s really just a wide array of people from all walks of life that happen to be hooked on heroin here in Ithaca.” According to Williamson, the IPD receives about two such calls a day.

While the average age of use has dropped in recent years, Investigator Thomas Dunn of Ithaca College’s Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management said he hasn’t seen an increase in heroin usage on the college campus. However, he did agree with Williamson and Rusen’s sentiments: There is a heroin problem in Tompkins County.

What Comes Next?

Sen. Charles Schumer
Sen. Charles Schumer. Source: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Currently, it’s hard to discern just how badly the heroin epidemic is. Police departments are not required to break down their reports by specific incident. Instead, the lowest grouping most of them seem to have is blanket term “narcotics.” However, on March 5, 2014, Sen. Charles E. Schumer called for a statewide, standardized heroin database to track the trends. This database should help authorities figure out the most heroin-heavy areas, as well as hospital statistics, types of heroin most used, etc. Schumer wants to get this up and running within three to six months.

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