Cheap heroin has flooded Long Island's drug markets, leading to a spike in arrests involving the drug as opioid addicts and dealers increasingly turn to it in place of expensive pain pills, authorities say.
Heroin-related arrests in Nassau and Suffolk have risen to a total of 798 through June 1 compared with 736 during the same period last year -- fueled by an almost 38 percent increase in such arrests in areas patrolled by Nassau County police, records show. Such arrests rose from 186 to 256 in the department's jurisdiction.
Suffolk County police made 542 arrests through June 1 -- about the same number made during that period in 2012, when more heroin began to reach Long Island, authorities said.
The "professionalization" of heroin mills -- which are being run with the discipline and stringent managerial oversight of regular businesses -- has helped dealers meet increased demand and sell the drug at discounted rates in some neighborhoods, authorities say.
"It's kind of frightening," Capt. Kevin Smith, head of the Nassau County Police vice and narcotics unit, said of the rise in heroin use and arrests. "A lot of young people are getting it here. It's a despicable thing being done by dealers."
In Nassau County, almost 60 percent of those arrested on charges involving heroin this year are between 21 and 30 years old, Smith said. Police are seeing increased heroin sales in communities such as Massapequa, Baldwin and East Meadow.
In Suffolk County, the demographics of heroin users are similar, police say, but the problem is spread across the entire county rather than concentrated in a few communities.
"It's the drug of choice these days," said Suffolk Police Deputy Chief of Detectives Mark Griffiths.
Authorities say they began to see a significant turn away from pain pills and toward heroin in 2012, partly because of stepped-up enforcement and restrictions after the Medford pharmacy murders of four people in June 2011.
Another incident that led to limiting access of pain pills was the accidental fatal shooting of federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent John Capano on Dec. 31, 2011. Capano was struggling with a suspect who had robbed a Seaford pharmacy of painkillers. He was mistakenly shot by a retired Nassau County police officer.
Opioid pain pills such as oxycodone and hydrocodone are part of the same chemical family as heroin, and produce a similar high, but at much lower prices.
As pain pills became harder to find last year, their prices rose to an average of $1 per milligram. That means a single 80 milligram pill now sells for about $80, authorities say.
By contrast, the price of a small bag of Colombian heroin has been driven down to as little as $4 in some Long Island communities because of a glut of it on the market, authorities say. A bag containing one gram generally sells for as little as $10 on the Island but can sometimes be found at lower prices, authorities say, depending on the individual seller or market.
Beginning last year, local police say they encountered more dealers and users on Long Island. 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.
More deaths confirmed
As arrests and heroin supplies have increased, so has the number of overdoses. The number of people confirmed to have died from heroin-related overdoses across Long Island rose to 110 last year from 96 in 2011.
New York is one of the country's main hubs for heroin distribution -- accounting for 17 percent of all heroin seized nationwide -- in part because of the demand from customers on Long Island, authorities say.
And the heroin mills federal agents shut down now are usually sophisticated, well-disciplined operations -- a far cry from the run-down drug factories that once attracted lines of waiting junkies, turf wars and gunplay.
One of those operations, run by a group known as the Perez Organization, was decimated in March 2012 when federal authorities and local police arrested 20 of its alleged members.
The organization's leadership was centralized in Woodhaven, Queens, with distribution networks in Nassau and Suffolk counties and a storage facility in Brooklyn. Its members were allegedly responsible for distributing more than 20 kilograms of heroin, with a street value of at least $2.75 million, to drug dealers in Long Island and Queens in the nine months preceding their arrests.
The investigation was initiated partly in response to the increased heroin use on Long Island, police said.
"There's more sophistication in these operations now," said Erin Mulvey, spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in New York. "Things have changed."
Heroin stigma fading
The heroin flowing into Long Island -- most of which is smuggled from South America and packaged in New York City -- is also purer than in years past, authorities say. It's being used more by middle- and upper-class professionals, who have mostly abandoned syringe use in favor of snorting.
"For this generation of users, heroin has lost its stigma," Griffiths said. "The image of a user cooking heroin and shooting it is fading. Now it's white powder they're snorting."
For parents of drug addicts, the trend toward more heroin use on Long Island has been disturbing.
"My daughter became addicted to pills and then moved to heroin because it's so cheap now . . . anyone can afford it if they borrow a few dollars from someone," said Gia Carmonica, 43, of Levittown, whose 22-year-old daughter narrowly survived a heroin overdose in February. "These kids are snorting it like it's candy. It's everywhere."
Drug treatment experts say the problem seems to be worsening, as access to pain pills continues to lessen and heroin becomes a more attractive product to dealers.
"The heroin problem seems to be getting worse," said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "That demand from pill users has to go somewhere, and right now it's to the heroin dealers."