By Ashley M. Casey
Heroin accounts for the majority of Oswego County’s drug cases, according to the county district attorney’s office.
“It has skyrocketed. It is out of control,” said Jeff Kinney, an investigator for the DA. Kinney retired as a lieutenant from the Fulton City Police Department. “It’s a complete switch from last year,” he added. Previously, most of the county’s drug offenses involved crack cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.
Kinney cited many reasons for the increase in heroin abuse within the county.
“The potency of heroin in the last decade or so has increased, so you don’t have to inject as much,” he said. Kinney said heroin is cheaper and more widely available than other drugs.
Oswego County Undersheriff Gene Sullivan said that heroin used to be a “boutique drug,” available only to those who could afford expensive narcotics.
“Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, heroin was really expensive and really hard to get,” Sullivan said. “You just didn’t see it around here.”
Kinney also pointed to the recent painkiller addiction epidemic as a catalyst for heroin’s popularity. Heroin, like highly addictive painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, is an opiate drug.
David Guyer, resource coordinator for Oswego County’s Drug Treatment Court, made the prescription-street connection as well. He said some doctors may prescribe opioid painkillers “too liberally.”
“The addiction starts out as a legitimate opiate prescription from a doctor, or (the addict) takes someone else’s,” Guyer said.
He said people might sell excess pills, or teenagers might raid their parents’ medicine cabinet. Once the pills run out, heroin is a cheaper alternative for a similar high.
A study from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that prescription opiate addicts aged 12 to 49 are 19 times more likely than others in their age group to become addicted to heroin.
Guyer also said people with “unaddressed mental health reasons” may use illegal drugs such as heroin to self-medicate. “The heroin makes them feel better,” he said.
People of all types can become heroin users. Kinney said he could see no pattern in the demographics of heroin addicts involved in the cases he’s worked on.
“Based on our experience, it’s crossing all aspects of life. Race doesn’t matter. Occupation doesn’t matter,” Kinney said. “I think the trend is younger people are using it, but we know of older people using it too.”
Guyer said while the heroin cases he oversees are also a mix, there is somewhat of a socioeconomic pattern.
“Generally, I would say the people I deal with are of lower socioeconomic status,” he said. “However, I’ve seen people that come from more means that (use as well).”
A recent Post-Standard article reported that Onondaga County has already attributed 20 deaths to heroin overdose in 2013. That number is up tenfold from four years ago.
As of June 2013, no heroin deaths had been reported in Oswego County.
Kinney said he did not have figures on how many heroin overdoses Oswego County may have seen this year.
“Sometimes law enforcement isn’t called, and it’s found out later it was an opiate overdose,” he said.
Sullivan said that the heroin problem in Onondaga County has had a “ripple effect” on Oswego County. He said that people travel back and forth to Syracuse more often than they did in previous generations, and they may be bringing new drug trends back with them.
“For us, it almost ends up like a preview (of) things to be aware of,” Sullivan said. He added that this has made Oswego County law enforcement more “proactive” in tackling the county’s drug cases.
As for what can be done about the county’s growing heroin problem, there are many resources in place for addicts.
“From our perspective, we try through the drug court program … (to) divert more people into treatment,” Guyer said. He added that law enforcement officials have been “very supportive” of this plan.