Surge in heroin use troubles authorities

It used to be rare for city police to arrest someone for having a hypodermic needle. But this year,

It used to be rare for city police to arrest someone for having a hypodermic needle.

But this year, 13 such arrests have been made, most while officers were investigating unrelated crimes. It’s a sign that this small community, like many in the nation, has a growing heroin problem.

In the past two years, arrests for heroin and needle possession have spiked, and authorities see heroin soon eclipsing cocaine as the drug of choice after marijuana — if it hasn’t already.

“I would say that more people are using heroin than crack or cocaine,” said Saratoga County District Attorney James Murphy III. He has seen heroin abuse become the second most common addiction faced by people sentenced to participate in the county’s drug treatment court. Alcoholism is still the most common addiction.

The rise in heroin abusers has happened in the last three years, Murphy said.

Authorities chalk the increase up to availability of the highly addictive drug — heroin is often easier to get on the street than cocaine — increasing purity and the trend toward snorting the drug, which can entice first-time users who fear needles.

City police made 74 arrests this year for charges involving drugs other than marijuana.

Bigger cities in the area, not surprisingly, have more arrests for all drugs, including heroin. In Albany from January to July, 114 people were arrested for sale and possession of heroin, crack cocaine and other drugs, excluding marijuana. And Schenectady had 195 similar arrests this year to date.

Police don’t track heroin-specific charges, but arrests for criminal possession of a hypodermic instrument almost always indicate the suspect is a heroin user, said city police spokesman Lt. Gregory Veitch.

While this year there have been 13 arrests on that misdemeanor charge, last year there were seven. Only two people faced that charge in 2007. The year before there were no such arrests, and in 2005 there was one.

Warning sign

Authorities are alarmed by the increase.

“We don’t generally see big spikes like that,” Veitch said, adding the use of cocaine and marijuana hasn’t fluctuated.

City police still see cocaine as more common than heroin, but say heroin use is gaining fast.

They saw the beginning of the recent spike about 18 months ago, when a few heroin overdoses occurred in a short time. Then officers started finding needles on suspects, and arrested more people for making heroin deals in parking lots.

When Veitch was a narcotics investigator between 2001 and 2006, he never once bought heroin.

Now narcotics officers focus on heroin almost as much as cocaine, cultivating confidential informants from suspects they pick up during arrests. Police have bought heroin undercover between five and 10 times this year and have executed about half a dozen search warrants looking for the drug — more than they did in all of last year, Veitch said.

Even with police vigilance, authorities can’t stamp out heroin dealing.

“We’re always one step behind. It seems like we can’t get ahead of a problem to cut it off,” Veitch said.

State troopers and officers in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force are seeing the same rise in heroin, as are communities nationwide, he said.

The drug is still more prevalent in bigger cities because of their larger populations.

“Six or seven heroin buys [in a year] is big for us, but in Albany, they can do that in a week,” Veitch said.

Local authorities say many heroin users start out snorting crystallized heroin, which is seen as more attractive and safer than shooting it into their veins. Fear of getting track marks or catching HIV or hepatitis made people wary of shooting up after heroin’s surge in popularity in the 1970s.

“That’s why I think cocaine replaced it as something that was more ‘alluring’ or more ‘fashionable,’” Murphy said.

Sadly, authorities say, users who become addicted while snorting the drug will do anything to get another hit. Injecting the drug brings a more intense high.

Younger and younger

“People who said they’d never shoot are shooting it,” said police Chief Edward Moore.

Inhaling fumes from burning heroin is another method, also called “chasing the dragon,” Murphy said.

Younger and younger people have taken up snorting heroin and become addicts, the district attorney said. “It’s high school, college-age kids. It really doesn’t have any age limits.”

Heroin comes from the opiate family, and the local supply is produced from opium poppies grown primarily in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Mexico.

Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan grew each year this decade before hitting what appears to be a peak in 2007, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Last year the country’s opium poppy cultivation decreased by 19 percent, leading UNODC to declare in a September report that “the bottom is starting to fall out of the Afghan opium market.”

But local authorities are still waiting to see a decrease in street heroin.

The local heroin supply comes to the Capital Region through New York City, getting progressively more expensive the farther it travels.

“The price is higher in the Saratoga area because one, I think it’s riskier to sell here, and two, because there isn’t as much of it as there is in New York City and more urban areas,” Murphy said.

But opium prices are lower than they’ve been in 10 years, making heroin accessible and attractive to users.

Murphy said local users can buy a pinky-sized hit of heroin for $10, a $40 bag that contains about a tenth of a gram and will last for about 24 hours, or a 10-bag bundle for $400.

“It could last you for a week or more,” he said.

A gram of cocaine is about $100 in Saratoga Springs, so cocaine is a lot cheaper than heroin gram-for-gram, but heroin is much purer so less of it is needed to get high, Veitch said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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