ALBANY, NY – Heroin peddled by Mexican drug cartels have flooded the Northeast – and unlike its predecessors from the 1980s, the drug is stronger, cheaper and purer.
New York City has become the hub for the criminal enterprise and lawmakers in the state are putting forward a package of legislation that seeks to fight the resurgence of heroin.
The bills, expected to become public on Monday, would toughen penalties for dealers, impose more funding for overdose-reversal drugs and increase insurance coverage for treatment.
The proposed laws follow a series of forums that Senate Democrats held around the state on the sudden spread of the drug from New York City to sleepy upstate communities and Long Island suburbs.
Experts told lawmakers that a crackdown on prescription drugs has pushed addicts to heroin, which is significantly cheaper and easier to obtain. Deaths from heroin overdoses in New York have doubled from 215 in 2008 to 478 in 2012, according to the state Health Department.
Patricia Farrell, a former sergeant at arms in Albany's Capitol, said she went through a range of emotions when her daughter, Laree, told her she had used heroin.
"I wanted to vomit, I wanted to hug her, I wanted to hit her, I wanted to get her help," Farrell told lawmakers.
Four months later, in March 2013 – after detox, inpatient treatment, meetings and stints of sobriety – Laree, who graduated high school at 16, was found dead in her bed of an apparent overdose five days shy of her 19th birthday.
A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that initial use of heroin had doubled throughout the country – rising from 373,000 to 669,000 – from 2007 to 2012.
The drug, unlike the kind sold in the 1980s, is stronger and cheaper, with an average "hit" costing $7 to $10.
"When you look at a $10 bag of heroin, it's cheaper and more readily available than beer is in many regards," said Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting addiction.
Five years ago, his agency would serve fewer than 100 people a month. Last month, they served 868 people. Reynolds says the average age of heroin users has dropped from 42 to 22.
"This is someone who was in diapers during the heyday of the AIDS crisis," Reynolds said, noting that while heroin can also be snorted, younger users are choosing to inject the opioid.
Both Reynolds and Farrell emphasize the need for insurance providers to extend coverage for addicts seeking treatment.
"It's so important that insurance companies start to pay for these kids and adults that need to get help," Farrell said. "There is no happy ending to this drug."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.