Second in an occasional series.
The Nassau County Police Department has substantially increased its response to the heroin epidemic overtaking Long Island. It’s not working, and the problem is steadily getting worse.
“We keep adding and adding to what we’re doing,” said Thomas Krumpter, the department’s acting commissioner.
His was the first major department in the nation to train every officer in the use of the anti-overdose drug Narcan. He pointed to more patrols and undercover operations, prevention measures in schools and the recently formed Long Island Heroin Task Force as ways his department is battling the scourge.
“We are not winning,” Krumpter said grimly about how it’s going. “We’re losing right now.”
The problem is threefold: not enough prevention, obstacles in the way of law enforcement and not enough access to drug treatment. New programs and laws are needed. From 2009 to 2013, Nassau County lost 128 people to heroin-related deaths, the fifth-highest county total in the state. Suffolk had 337 heroin-related deaths in the same period, the highest in the state. But the rate of fatal heroin overdoses in Nassau has doubled since 2013 to more than 50 a year.
From the 1990s until a few years ago, the nation was flooded with easy access to prescription opiates such as Vicodin and OxyContin. When authorities realized how much damage prescription opiate addiction was causing, the State Legislature passed new laws cracking down on prescriptions, lowering black market supply, raising prices and creating a demand for cheap, high-quality heroin mostly from from New York City. And every number associated with opiate addiction, from deaths to treatment admissions to arrests to emergency room visits, has skyrocketed.
Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas promised in her election campaign last year to make the addiction scourge a top priority. She and Krumpter are seeking a new state law that would mandate that anyone revived from an opiate overdose with Narcan be placed on a 72-hour hold for hospitalization and evaluation. And it would require health insurance companies to pay for it. With such laws in place, those who suffer an overdose would have a fighting chance at finding a path to treatment before drug withdrawals force them to use heroin again. The timing is urgent because addictive cravings can begin within an hour or two after the administration of Narcan.
Meanwhile, Singas has diverted $585,000 in forfeiture funds to Maryhaven’s New Hope Crisis Center in Freeport to allow it to take new admissions around the clock. It’s an innovative use of the money. Drug addicts don’t necessarily have their moments of clarity and seek help during office hours. Both Singas and Krumpter support tougher laws that draw a clearer line between heroin users and dealers, getting help for the former and stiff sentences for the latter. Bills mandating those changes have been introduced in Albany, and drawing a clearer line between victims and vultures would be a big improvement.
Creative and aggressive law enforcement is a critical component in fighting the addiction menace. But the real key is prevention. Young people most of all have to be convinced that even dabbling in heroin or other opiates is unacceptable and frighteningly dangerous.
Opiate addiction is difficult to treat. Drug interdiction is frustratingly difficult to pursue. Getting a handle on the heroin problem is mostly about stopping use before it ever starts. — The editorial board