By sara sirota
On March 23, 2015, 20-year-old Holland Townsend arrived to St. Joseph’s Hospital. Her two-year struggle with heroin addiction culminated in an overdose that nearly killed her. She now resides at the Northeast Rehabilitation and Brain Injury Center in Lake Katrine, where she receives 24-hour care.
“It is a miracle that she survived,” said her stepfather, Dennis Gregg. But she will never be the same person again.
Townsend grew up in Cooperstown and Cazenovia, enjoyed athletics and had many friends and family. During her mid-teens, the allure of experimentation tightened its grip. She first went to a rehabilitation center four months following her mother’s death, when she was 18 years old. While receiving treatment, she met a boy who introduced her to a new drug.
The woes of heroin addiction began.
“We need to pull our heads out of the sand and realize it’s happening in beautiful, idyllic Cazenovia. It’s happening everywhere,” said Gregg, a Cazenovia resident and co-founder of a new substance abuse education organization that serves Madison County.
He and two mothers, Laurie Hunt and Diane Solomon of Cazenovia, became inspired to begin a grassroots organization after attending a forum on substance abuse at West Genesee High School.
Gregg contacted Assemblyman Gary Finch after the New York State Assembly Minority Task Force on Heroin Addiction and Community Response released their heroin epidemic report.
Following the example of a similar group in Auburn and believing that unity will improve outreach efforts, Gregg, Hunt, Solomon and the Cazenovia group has titled itself HEAL–Madison County (Heroin Epidemic Action League). They hope other counties will join.
HEAL–Madison County has four priorities: education, prevention, treatment and law enforcement. Thus far, they hosted a forum on March 21 at Chittenango Schools, began a Narcotics Anonymous Chapter, started a family and friends support group at Cazenovia Public Library, met with Senator Dave Valesky and spoke with Governor Andrew Cuomo. “He was very receptive to listening to us,” Hunt said of their conversation with the governor.
Near future plans include holding assemblies at Cazenovia High School. “We need to educate the youth and show them that there are other enjoyments in life besides alcohol, weed and pills,” Gregg said. Hunt hopes to educate parents too. “You don’t know if your child has a predisposition to addiction,” she said.
HEAL–Madison County further champions increased prescription regulation and decreased supply and demand. Gregg placed an emphasis on treatment, citing the major dilemma of time gaps between when people decide they need help and when facilities have availability to admit them. HEAL–Madison County hopes to resolve this problem by opening more treatment centers and temporary “holding centers.” The group further advocates more complete treatment, including affordable sober living facilities for post-treatment care.
Moreover, the group hopes to “raise awareness and take away the stigma of this heroin and opioid epidemic,” Gregg said. He insists that addiction is not a choice but a disease.
“If I can save a life, that means a lot,” Hunt added.
What Caused This Epidemic?
Several organizations, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, have attributed the heroin and opioid epidemic in part to the over prescription and availability of pain medications.
The National Institute of Drug and Alcohol says that nearly half of young people who inject heroin report abusing prescription pain killers prior to starting heroin.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014.” It is estimated that approximately 500,000 Americans are addicted to heroin today.
New York state epidemic and legislative response
New York state serves as a major heroin hub and distribution center, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the state accounts for approximately 20 percent of the heroin seized nationwide since 2010.
Beyond distribution, addiction pervades New York’s population. Between 2004 and 2013, admissions for heroin and prescription opioid abuse treatment rose from 63,793 to 89,269. In September 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo launched Combat Heroin, a campaign designed to tackle this epidemic. It includes information about warning signs, access to treatment and guidance to help parents educate their children.
“Heroin and opioid addiction has impacted families in every corner of our state and stolen the lives of too many New Yorkers,” the governor said.
Central New York has witnessed an increase in heroin use and heroin-related deaths in the past few years, according to a 2014 Upstate Medical University podcast that featured Michele Caliva, RN, administrative director of Upstate New York Poison Center and Nicholas Nacca, MD, a medical toxicology fellow.
Onondaga County accounts for the most exposure to heroin phone calls that the Upstate New York Poison Center received between January and June 11, 2015. During this period, the center received 45 calls from Onondaga County, eight from Oswego County, six from Oswego County and four from Madison County.
U.S. Representatives Richard Hanna (NY-22) has worked on multiple proposals that increase funding to fight addiction. Along with Rep. Brian Higgins (NY-26), he introduced the TREAT Act, which would raise the number of patients that can be treated by a certified medical provider with buprenorphine, a medicine that helps patients overcome their heroin addictions.
Hanna also partnered with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18) to introduce the Keeping Communities Safe Through Treatment Act, which would create a grant for local law enforcement agencies to create pre-booking division programs. Such programs permit police officers to direct certain low-level offenders away from jail and toward treatment.
“It is clear to me that what we are doing now to fight the heroin epidemic that has struck communities in upstate New York is not working,” Hanna said. “We must change how we address these problems both in terms of treatment and empowering communities to break the cycle of addiction and look at different ways to not only address these issues but overcome them.”
On March 31, Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders announced an agreement on New York’s $154 billion budget, which provides $141 million to address the heroin and opioid epidemic. This amount increased by $6 million from the previous year.
Treatment / law enforcement efforts in Madison County
While the heroin epidemic in New York state may not be as prevalent in Cazenovia and Madison County as in other parts of the state, its presence is still a major issue.
“There really are not enough treatment facilities for people with opioid addiction,” said Susan Jenkins, Executive Director of The Madison County Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, also known as BRiDGES. She cited the difficulty of finding suitable funding and qualified staff as one of the primary problems.
However, Jenkins said the media’s increasing discussion of the opioid problem offers hope for more initiatives, as people are coming to realize that addiction affects everybody. Still, the heroin epidemic may not be as prevalent in Cazenovia as in the rest of Madison County.
HEAL–Madison County proposes that law enforcement initiatives should focus on midlevel and major dealers, whereas addicts should receive treatment. “It’s a brain disease but we’re treating them as criminals,” Gregg said. According to Jenkins, incarceration can be very costly and does not provide the necessary treatment.
She did say, though, “Sometimes getting arrested is a great intervention” since it can compel people to receive the treatment that they need. “I think HEAL is doing a great job … People coming from the community can have bigger impact,” Jenkins said.
For more information on HEAL–Madison County visit healmadco.weebly.com and facebook.com/HealMadCo.