By Melissa Stagnaro
Special to The Evening Sun
CHENANGO COUNTY – It all started when I was injured and my doctor prescribed me opiate medication for my pain.’
That’s the story that James Everard, coordinator of Chenango County’s Drug Treatment Court, says he has been hearing from heroin addicts for the last five years.
As someone who has dedicated his career to aiding the recovery and rehabilitation of people with drug and alcohol issues, Everard has great insight into the drug problem in Chenango County.
News of a drug bust or an overdose may cause a stir when it hits the headlines, but according to Everard, the severity of the problem – and its impact on the community – is something the general public doesn’t realize.
“I think they would be shocked,” he said.
According to Everard, Chenango County started seeing an influx in heroin use around 2008. That’s when, in an effort to crack down on prescription drug abuse, New York State started holding doctors more accountable for the medication – particularly narcotic painkillers – they prescribed.
“A lot of the people who could no longer get those drugs started using heroin,” explained Chenango County District Attorney Joseph McBride, which was a cheaper option to feed their opiate addiction.
Since then, use of heroin has become the county’s biggest drug concern.
“You can find heroin in every community, big or small, in Chenango County,” Everard said.
<b> Disturbing Trends </b>
According to McBride, heroin use crosses all socio-economic groups, and there is no one demographic that is more susceptible or prone to use or addiction. But Everard has noticed one trend: a much younger age group are now using the highly-addictive drug, and using it intravenously.
“It’s less expensive than pills, and because (of) the purity…a young person becomes addicted very quickly,” he explained.
There are other trends both Everard and McBride have noticed. One is the influx of out-of-town drug dealers. A lack of employment opportunities in the area means that these out-of-towners have no trouble finding locals to peddle their wares.
“The new recruits get paid in heroin, enough to maintain their addiction and avoid the discomfort of withdrawal,” said Everard.
Arrests and convictions for drug possession have been on the rise, but they only tell part of the story when it comes to drug-related crime. According to McBride, 58 percent of the Chenango County’s District Attorney’s Office’s current 88 open cases are drug or alcohol related. And that doesn’t take into account the crimes that go unreported.
“Stealing from family members is usually the first crime an addicted person commits,” said Everard. “This can go on for a long time. The impact on a family unit is devastating.”
There is also the public health risk that heroin presents.
“There has been a dramatic increase in hepatitis cases and other types of infections that go untreated and become more serious,” Everard explained. These infections are spread by sharing needles.
Overdoses are on the rise as well, he said, which in some tragic cases have lead to death. These deaths leave the entire community reeling, not only family and friends.
These issues have prompted the formation of a new group, the Chenango County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition.
“[The Coalition] is working towards developing a comprehensive plan to address the increase in substance abuse and related health issues,” explained Everard.
<b> Rise of Methamphetamine </b>
Heroin isn’t the only drug causing concern in Chenango County. The use of methamphetamine is also on the rise.
“This is an epidemic in other areas of the country and my fear is it will escalate here because it is highly addictive, quickly impacts neurological function and withdrawal is very difficult,” Everard said. “That’s a combination for disaster.”
While methamphetamine has been seen in Chenango before, a different method is now being used to ‘cook’ the drugs, reported McBride.
Called ‘shake and bake’ or ‘one-pot,’ this method enables someone to manufacture on a small-scale – enough for their own use, as well as to sell to support their habit – in less than an hour. The supplies can be easily purchases and, since it’s all done in a soda bottle, it’s easily transported or hidden.
A week ago, a Sherburne man was arrested for cooking meth on the river bank behind North Main Street in Sherburne using this one-pot method.
There is also an environmental consequence to the process.
“Not only do they create a drug that is highly addictive and ruining lives, but it also has a hazardous by-product,” McBride said, explaining that the New York State Police have a special CERT unit to clean up dumpsites to prevent the hazardous waste from getting into the ground water.
According to the DA, meth is a county-wide problem. In the last year, manufacturing labs have been raided in Greene, Afton, Bainbridge, Sherburne and Norwich.
Detective Mike Purdy of the City of Norwich Police Department was instrumental in a bust in April, which succeeded in keeping 12 grams – close to 300 packets – off the streets. Those drugs had a street value upwards of $2,000 and were also manufactured using the one-pot method.
While meth is a growing concern in the city, it hasn’t gotten a foothold yet, according to Purdy. He attributes that to two things. The first is that, even with the one-pot method, the manufacture of meth remains a smelly process, making it hard to keep under wraps with neighbors close by. The second has to do with the NPD’s own efforts.
“We’re aggressively investigating anyone and any place with the intention of making meth in the city,” he stated.
But meth isn’t the city’s most pressing drug issue. The biggest trend Purdy says he’s seeing is as a result of the absence, rather than the availability, of a particular street drug.
According to the detective, large busts in Utica, Binghamton, Syracuse and New York City have put a crimp in the supply of heroin to the area.
“Through the chain, it affects Norwich,” he explained.
With their drug of choice not as readily available, Purdy said heroin users are turning to another drug: Suboxone.