NORWICH – In a 12 hour period between Monday night and Tuesday morning emergency crews responded to six suspected Fentanyl overdoses and were able to save four of the victims, two died.
Local officials said they are limited in their response and more deaths would occur. There have been a number of local deaths from overdoses but typically dealers are not charged with any additional crime besides dealing in New York.
“Right now in New York a drug dealer gets an appearance ticket. There is nothing to deter and I would say it's a public health problem, but it is also a criminal issue and needs to be treated like a criminal issue. Not for users, but for dealers,” said Chenango County District Attorney Michael Ferrarese.
Ferrarese explained, “No one is ever charged, there are hundreds of thousand of overdoses in this country, no one is getting charged. These people voluntarily take drugs. It is not a crime.”
Monday evening Norwich Police responded to a residence on East Main Street and discovered a female in her 40s who had passed away from a suspected overdose, along with another person in critical condition. Narcan was applied by emergency crews and the person was saved.
Then at 4 a.m., Tuesday, at an apartment on Walnut Street four more individuals were located. Narcan was applied but one of the victims died at the scene.
In Chenango County Ferrarese said, “We are losing a lot of people between the ages of 17 and 26. The bail reform has completely crippled our ability to hold those dealing drugs accountable, because they face no consequences. And the diversion programs are not working. They are certainly not a deterrent.”
Ferrarese said, “There is always a danger, a new batch could come in today. The dealers are not regulated by the FDA. You don't know what you are putting in your system. In fact most heroin we get now is mostly with fentanyl, or we are just getting the fentanyl.”
“We haven't even discussed the collateral crimes that are reoccurring because these people are addicted. I'm talking about burglaries, larcenies, identity thefts, car break-ins, because they have to support their habit. All of these collateral crimes are occurring because we have allowed the addiction to accelerate so quickly,” he said
Norwich Police Chief Reuben Roach said, “In compliance with bail reform, when we arrest someone for selling narcotics, the police department issues them an appearance ticket and we release them. This is a legislative issue and needs to be addressed at that level. Simply arresting every user and putting them in jail is not a roadmap to success.
“However, limiting our ability to arraign and to get bail set on the drug dealers is having a horrific effect on deterring individuals from selling these deadly substances. It’s nearly impossible to shut a drug house down when we are releasing the drug dealer within hours of their arrest. This coupled with the lack of mental health workers and rehabilitation sites, has created a perfect storm.”
Ferrarese is a constant advocate of change for New York drug laws.
“I would love to see the bail reform repealed to allow us to hold drug dealers accountable,” said Ferrarese. “That will deter people from coming into our community and dealing drugs. I would like for us to go back to the pre-2020 bail reform were we could put our local people that were dealing in order to support their own habit into the local jail for a period of time. Then we would offer them rehab when they were no longer high and sober for a while and thinking rationally again.”
“We have heard frustrations from both community members and business owners. Whether it be about drug houses, or individuals loitering in front of local businesses, there is a clear frustration from members in this city, and we are doing everything we can as a police department. However, once we make an arrest and issue an appearance ticket, it becomes a judicial matter,” said Roach.
“Six death, near-death, events in two days, in such a small community, is shocking. It is shocking,” said the chief.
He said without the emergency use of Narcan by responders more would have died this week. The nasal drug is able to reverse otherwise fatal drug overdoses within moments and was recently approved for over-the-counter sale by the FDA.
Roach also said, “The investigation is ongoing, and we are working closely with local, state, and federal agencies on this case. We were able to get an analysis on the content of the deadly drugs that were used, and the mixture contains synthetic cannabinoid, MDMA, heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine. This is all mixed into one substance and then sold for consumption in our community.”
The police chief and DA said state law enforcement and other officials were sharing information and the source of the growing problems was not a secret.
“This is going to continue as long as we have open borders, the influx of cartel methamphetamine and fentanyl is at an all time high because of the open borders. We need to crack down on the border to stop the supplies form coming in, they are inundating our communities, we need to educate people to say no really,” said Ferrarese. “We've tracked the drugs and they all come from the border, the fentanyl comes from China and all the meth is from cartels in Mexico. We know where they are coming from.”
Ferrarese said there was been proposed state legislation to charge dealers that kill people with deadly drugs with additional crimes but that law was never passed by the New York State lawmakers in Albany.
The lack of support for the law sent its own message to law enforcement in the state, said the district attorney. Combining that political message with others from state leaders such as defund the police, bail reforms and the legalization and normalization of drug use, has led to the creation of record numbers of addicts and deaths.
The policies have caused a chilling effect on law enforcement, inspiring mass retirement of some of the most experienced personnel across the justice system.
Like most other counties, Chenango County has consistently struggled to attract staff. The lack of lawyers and police is impacting the local justice system and places more burden on those who remain. A lot of less serious incidents and cases are falling between the cracks. Officials lack resources and there is a sense the state's political system is unpredictable and lacks the will to back them up.
“There is no law on the books right now that says, 'If you come from out of town to deal drugs we are going to be able to charge you with homicide if you sell drugs that kills someone,” said Ferrarese. “We can charge them for selling the drugs if we catch you but we are unable to charge a homicide. We've tried that before, even in this county we tried it before.”
Ferrarese recalled a past case involving a two friends. One of them provided the drugs for the both of them to use. Unfortunately the drugs were laced and the two men had overdoses, one died.
The defendant was emotional over his friend's death and told police he was responsible. He was charged in local court for selling drugs and homicide.
“The homicide charge was thrown out,” said Ferrarese. He said prosecutors might have other options for holding dealers responsible but the legal precedents did not encourage it and they are costly and time consuming cases to litigate.
Proving intent and that the person selling the drugs is more responsible than the one using them, is also difficult and not a clear cut case in most situations. There are many deaths from overdoses that do not include fentanyl or feature an obvious deadly chemical to blame.
Another challenge is when these cases go to court they require a lot of lab testing and expert testimony. The New York State crime labs are already working on a backlog of cases.
Perhaps the largest challenge are the sheer number of overdoses occurring now. With hundreds of thousand of deaths and hundreds of thousands of additional near-death overdoses occurring across the country in recent years. There are not enough resources to practically pursue all those cases as homicides even if the justice system wanted to.
Roach said, “When I was first hired as a police officer in 2003, we were seeing the tail end of the crack cocaine epidemic and the rise of prescription opioid medications. This eventually led to a heroin epidemic and now a methamphetamine/heroin epidemic.”
“The community approach is to educate people not to take drugs. We need a broader based initiative, we need to be in the schools,” said Ferrarese. “It's a serious problem that is not getting any better. If they don't change laws, including national laws, if we don't close the boarders, if the state doesn't start dealing with it, it won't go away.”