When Det. Jim Whiston started working drug cases in the mid-1980s, heavy heroin use afflicted the historically black Hempstead neighborhood south of Franklin Street.
And just about everyone who was using heroin at the time in Hempstead was black, he said.
"Occasionally, you'd get a white kid," said Whiston, then a Hempstead Village police officer and now with the Nassau County district attorney's office. "We didn't have much contact with white heroin users."
The phenomenon of what heroin usage once was on Long Island has changed fundamentally. Today, heroin-related deaths and admissions to rehab clinics across the region have caught the attention of law enforcement and other experts who are witnessing what has been described as an epidemic of heroin usage in white communities.
Some of the evidence to support a historic shift from black to white communities is anecdotal, and some is backed up by statistics. In Suffolk County, 181 people died in heroin-related overdoses from January 2006 through August 2009, two of whom were black. In Nassau County, 12 of the 126 heroin-related overdose deaths from January 2006 through April 2009 were blacks. Blacks make up 10.8 percent of the Nassau County population, and 7.2 percent of Suffolk County residents.
Newsday has published stories on heroin usage on Long Island last year, reporting, for example, that addiction treatment centers are at capacity and that some of those held in heroin's grip are white children barely in their teens.
Statistics from the Nassau County medical examiner's office show that the average age at which blacks died from heroin overdoses was higher than that of whites who died from ODs. The average age of blacks who died from a heroin overdose over the 10 years from 1999 through 2008 was 44.2, according to the statistics. For whites, that number over the same time period was 38.09.
Experts, addiction treatment specialists and law enforcement officials don't agree on why the face of the typical heroin user has changed on Long Island, but as Long Island deals with its new epidemic, this shift to many observers is considered dramatic.
Angela Samlal, a nurse manager of the 18-bed resident methadone detox unit at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, said most of the young African-Americans admitted to the unit are addicted not to heroin but to the form of cocaine called crack.
Young blacks avoid heroin
Samlal said she believes that as heroin usage sweeps through traditionally white suburban communities, young blacks are avoiding it because they witnessed its effects on older members of their communities.
"They saw the outcome and educated themselves," she said.
Diana Coleman, 55, who works for Nassau's Equal Opportunity Commission, said she remembers when heroin was a scourge in black neighborhoods. So today, as heroin is back in the news on Long Island, she is puzzled when she sees all the attention being paid to heroin abusers and the strong community response to it.
As long as heroin was "contained" in the black communities on Long Island, government and police didn't care about its effects on the communities, Coleman asserted, a belief shared for years by many blacks. But now that it has spread outside black neighborhoods, there are drug summits and heroin task forces to fight it.
"Certain things are acceptable in the minority community, but when it happens in the white community, it's a catastrophe," said Coleman, of Roosevelt, whose brother, Tommy, started using heroin at 12 and died five years ago, in his 50s, after getting HIV-AIDS from intravenous drug use.
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said she does not necessarily disagree with Coleman's view. "There has never been enough emphasis on treatment," she said. "You cannot arrest your way out of this problem."
Some experts say they believe that black kids in areas once troubled by heroin usage have seen how drug addiction can devastate families, even entire communities, and have rejected it. Others speculate that kids in mostly black neighborhoods associate heroin use with HIV and AIDS, which is linked with intravenous drug use.
Others theorize that black kids don't use as much as others the "gateway drugs" like prescription pain killers that other heroin addicts found in their parents' medicine cabinets. It is the abuse of those prescription drugs that experts on Long Island say has helped usher in the growth of heroin abuse in white communities, big and small, across the region.
"It became uncool," Ric Curtis, professor of anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said of heroin use in black communities. Curtis has studied heroin usage in New York City for the National Institute on Drug Addiction.
Teen's death spurred action
The overdose death in 2008 of Natalie Ciappa, 18, of Massapequa, helped galvanize public attention and spurred efforts to educate the public about the signs and dangers of heroin use. In Smithtown, heroin summits have been held, including one in March that drew 1,000 concerned and frightened parents.
Police in Nassau in September held an anonymous drug disposal program to urge people to turn in prescription painkillers to keep them away from teenagers. Also in the fall, the Suffolk County Police Department announced that it was beefing up its heroin task force with an additional 31 officers and detectives.
This year, at the Nassau County methadone clinic at NUMC in East Meadow, which averages 250 evaluations a month, 9 percent of the patients evaluated for heroin and opiate addiction have been African-American, said Dr. Constantine Ioannou, vice chairman of psychiatry at the hospital. The methadone clinic treats patients from both counties.
Curtis said many young blacks "saw the communal effect on their siblings and parents, and the community, over the years" and turned away from it. The best research on what racial group uses what drug is at least a decade old, he said. But anecdotally, the research showed that "if you were African-American, you had turned your back on heroin," Curtis said.
"A lot of people who came up in the inner city, whose brother or parents came up in the '70s and '80s, don't find heroin to be as attractive as other drugs," Austin said.