Heroin killed a record 83 people in Suffolk County last year as more addicts turned to the drug amid a crackdown on prescription pill abuse, according to law enforcement officials and county records.
The number of people confirmed to have died from heroin-related overdoses across Long Island rose to 110 last year from 96 in 2011, despite a decline in Nassau, records of the county medical examiners show. Heroin claimed more lives even as the overall number of opiate overdose victims on Long Island fell to 338 in 2012 from 366 the previous year, records show.
Authorities attributed the increase in heroin deaths to a dwindling supply of pain pills sold on the streets and tighter restrictions at pharmacies.
"They've closed down the pharmacy access and cracked down on the bad doctors, but that demand goes somewhere, and right now that's to heroin dealers," said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "It's flowing to . . . [heroin dealers] in communities across Long Island and the city, because pills are so much harder to get."
Suffolk police agreed that heroin use is increasing.
"We're seeing an upward trend to heroin use," said Suffolk police Det. Lt. Bob Donohue, commanding officer of the community response bureau. "It's almost like a graduation from prescription pills. The cost of heroin is cheaper and it's easier for them to get their hands on."
In Nassau County, heroin-related overdose deaths fell to 27 last year from 32 in 2011, records show. Nassau County police said their emphasis on making drug arrests and educating people about the dangers of heroin and pain pill abuse helped contribute to the decline in overdose deaths. In Suffolk County, heroin-related overdose deaths rose from 64 in 2011 to 83 in 2012, the records show.
The number of heroin-related arrests by Nassau County police surged to 427 last year from 228 in 2011, county records show. In Suffolk the number of heroin-related arrests rose to 1,266 last year from 1,051 in 2011.
At the root of the turn toward heroin is a sweeping effort by federal and local law enforcement agencies to deter prescription drug abuse. The effort was spurred by the Medford pharmacy murders of four people in June 2011 by David Laffer, who authorities said also stole large quantities of painkillers.
Another galvanizing event was the accidental fatal shooting of federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent John Capano on Dec. 31, 2011, by a retired Nassau County police officer while Capano was struggling with a suspect who had robbed a Seaford pharmacy of painkillers.
The battle to curb abuse of pills such as oxycodone and hydrocodone has included more pharmacist education, the establishment of a real-time state database to track prescriptions, and the arrests of pain doctors and dealers.
Law enforcement officials and drug treatment experts also say the actual number of heroin overdose victims may be higher on Long Island, since not all victims undergo toxicology tests and heroin is difficult to identify as a cause of death because it metabolizes very quickly.
"It's probably true that many go unreported or unrecognized depending on the circumstance in which someone died," said Joseph Smith, executive director of Long Beach Reach, a chemical dependency treatment center.
Suffolk police, federal Drug Enforcement Administration officials and drug treatment experts said Long Islanders who once used only pain pills are increasingly traveling to parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx to purchase heroin. It is a fraction of the cost of prescription opioids such as OxyContin, which can cost anywhere from $20 to $80 per pill, depending on their strength.
By contrast, a 1-gram bag of Colombian heroin typically costs about $10, and dealers across the region have begun to split the bags in half and sell them for $7 apiece to meet increased demand, authorities said.
"It's the same high, and it's cheaper than the pills," said DEA spokeswoman Erin Mulvey. "This is a serious problem."
Among those who died from heroin overdoses in 2012 was Megan Roethel, 22, of Huntington, who began using the drug when it became too difficult to buy pain pills, said her mother, Susan Roethel.
"As soon as she couldn't afford them, she took heroin," said Roethel, founder of the drug awareness group The Fallen on Long Island. "It was much cheaper and it was much more available to her than the pills. Young people don't have the fear of heroin now that they used to."
HEROIN DEATHS STEADILY RISING ON LONG ISLAND
OVERDOSE DEATHS IN SUFFOLK
Source: Suffolk and Nassau County medical examiners