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A hard life: heroin use increases in region, strains services

Last week the Food and Drug Administration approved a prescription device that can inject a fast acting antidote to heroin and other opioid drugs. It’s the latest response to a surge in opioid abuse. Heroin use has doubled between 2007 and 2012, and it’s no longer just an urban street drug; it’s now common in small town America.

For almost 40 of his 54 years, Jerry Jones has done drugs.

"At an early age, started with pot, drinking," Jones said. "It wasn't long after that where I started using other drugs, cocaine, speed, acid. I've done every drug under the sun."

But Jones says he didn’t use heroin and he never took painkillers, that is, until he really needed them. Fourteen years ago he broke his neck in a motorcycle accident, and in the hospital he was given the potent painkiller oxycontin.

"I got out and I'm addicted," Jones explained. "I was addicted probably the first day they gave it to me because it made me feel good."

He spent the next decade hooked on the pills. They were prescribed freely, he says, and even on the street there were plenty around if you knew where to look.

But as the abuse of painkillers became epidemic, health departments began to keep a closer eye on who was getting prescriptions, to prevent ‘doctor shopping’ for the pills. Supply was down, demand was up, and so were prices. Jones did the math.

"Instead of spending $80 on an oxycontin, I could go get a bundle of heroin, ten bags of heroin for $100," Jones said. "So it was way more economic for me."

Those factors, availability, price and an addiction to painkillers, are big reasons behind the recent surge of heroin use in communities across the state. Jones is from Rome, where just a few years ago a heroin overdose was big news, says Detective Commander Tim Bates of the Rome Police.

"The officers were talking, 'Hey, we had a person who overdosed on heroin,' had a call for that, can you believe it sort of thing," Bates said. "Now it's progressed to you don't even, most officers don't even bat an eye at it, just a routine call."

Three years ago Rome police responded to 8 overdose calls. Last year, it was 42. In Oneida County last year, at least 11 people died from heroin overdoses.

"Those numbers may not seem like a lot, but we're not a major city here," Bates said. "To us, those numbers are frightening."

The drug's grip on so many people is so strong, says Ray Philo, that the problem won’t be solved by simply sending users to prison. Philo is a former police chief who now teaches criminal justice at Utica College.

"If you can't address the psychological or physical problem of addiction, you're going to keep arresting," Philo explained. "There has to be an enforcement component, and yes, there has to be prevention, but there has to be a rehabilitation component."

The public seems to agree. A poll out last week by the Pew Research Center found two-thirds of Americans now favor treatment, not jail, for users of “hard” drugs like heroin.

At the Insight House, a treatment facility in Utica, about a quarter of new admissions are heroin users. Cheryl Spina runs the day rehab program there. She says by the time most people come in, they’re in a desperate state.

"Sometimes they need detox first, before they can enter a program," Spina said. "No one going through acute withdrawal wants to sit through a group and listen to other people. They just can't do it."

Spina says some newer medical treatments have been effective in curbing cravings for heroin and other opiate-based drugs. But she says behavioral therapy remains an important part of recovery.

That’s been the case with Jerry Jones. As bad as things were for him, a life of bad decisions he says, they got worse once he turned to heroin.

"Not long after I sold my car, I lost my apartment, I became homeless, I stole from people that actually cared about me and loved me," Jones said.

Now after going through rehab, Jones has been clean for 22 months, but he says he still thinks about using every single day. And he does something called playing the tape.

"Playing the tapes means I look back at what happened when I used heroin," Jones said. "And if I play the tape all the way through, homeless, hungry, dirty, a thief and in jail in the end. And suicidal."

A hard life’s hard lesson. And one many others face as the number of heroin users continues to climb.

David Chanatry reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website, nyrp-uc.org.