Norine Hodges estimated that 40 people would show up to a recent overdose awareness vigil in Cobleskill, maybe 60. She was off by a bit.
“Two hundred people showed up,” said Hodges, executive director of the Schoharie County Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.
At the time she was unaware three people had died from apparent heroin overdoses in the two days prior to the vigil. She later learned that the three deaths, each of which were of young people in their 20s, occurred in a single 24-hour period.
She had already been seeing more people reach out to her organization for help with addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers, and the vigil last Wednesday, which coincided with National Overdose Awareness Day, was further evidence that the scourge of addiction is touching more and more lives in Schoharie County.
“I think that’s moving in a positive direction, that we’re going to get at this thing,” said Hodges, of the turnout at the vigil. “We just have to solve this problem.”
So far this year four people – all in their 20s – have died from what authorities believe are heroin overdoses, according to Schoharie County Sheriff Anthony Desmond.
A 25-year-old man and 20-year-old woman died in Esperance Aug. 29, while another man in his 20s died in Richmondville less than 24 hours later on Aug. 30. Another Richmondville man, age 26, died of an apparent heroin overdose June 16. There have been 20 heroin overdoses so far this year, said Desmond, including the four fatalities.
Desmond said the June overdose death was the first one he’s seen since he was elected sheriff in 2009.
“It’s certainly something that I don’t believe could ever have happened,” said Desmond of the rash of overdose deaths. “But with the number of people that have died … it’s partly bordering on becoming an epidemic.”
New York has seen a 2,000 percent surge in heroin-related deaths between 2005 and 2014, according to a June report released by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. The 2014 death rate for heroin in the state was 4.2 per 100,000 people.
Schoharie County, with three months left in the year, now has a rate of 4 heroin-related deaths per 32,700 people, the population of the county according to the 2010 census.
“In a county of about 30,000 having four heroin deaths, that’s quite a few,” said Desmond.
Desmond said heroin’s relatively cheap price is one reason for its explosion in popularity across the state. In Schoharie County, law enforcement has previously dealt with cycles of marijuana, cocaine, crack cocaine and LSD use.
“Now we’re up to heroin,” said Desmond. “From what I hear, the first time you use heroin you’re addicted to it. So they keep looking for that first high and it gets more potent.”
Desmond said the county has also seen an increase in burglaries and grand larcenies. “I believe that’s all stemming from people needing to get money to purchase heroin and other drugs,” he said.
Hodges said the four deaths are tragic, but with 16 other overdoses occurring since the year began, the potential for even more deaths is alarming. She believes several factors account for heroin’s increasing presence in the county, including a lack of funding to combat the problem, economic depression and the social acceptance of alcohol and marijuana use at a young age.
“My personal feeling is that alcohol for young people has become so socially acceptable that our young people are drinking younger – they’re drinking at an earlier age,” said Hodges. “Because alcohol affects your ability to make decisions, it’s easier to say yes to things you normally wouldn’t say yes to.”
Hodges said she sees a similar effect with marijuana.
“When a teen begins smoking marijuana they typically end up accelerating to daily use pretty quickly,” said Hodges. “Then it becomes a ho-hum kind of daily high, so then when they really want to ‘have a good time’ they may choose to use a stronger drug.’”
Hodges said her organization, which employs four people, receives about $180,000 annually from the NYS Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.
“My funding’s been flat for 10 years,” said Hodges, who has been with the council for 13 years. “And every time I’ve asked for more money from OASAS I’m told I’m not going to get it.”
With more money, Hodges said she would hire additional staff for preventative education around drug abuse, particularly heroin. In the past decade she’s worked with the funding she’s received to hold classes in every Schoharie County school, at all grade levels, aside from Gilboa-Conesville Central School District.
“My goal is to use what we have but to use it better because I don’t see the dollars coming here,” she said.
Hodges also believes massive flooding that hit the county in 2011 has led to increased drug use as economic depression and hopelessness set in.
“After Irene, after the huge flood, it got pretty depressing around here,” she said, noting that many people she’s spoken with feel faced with a lack of opportunity. “I think that lends itself too, there seems to be sort of a sense of hopelessness of finding a future here in the community.”
While both Hodges and Desmond feel that rates of heroin use are increasing in the county, there have been areas of improvement, including the creation of a county Opiate Task Force Coalition and more attention at the state and federal level to the heroin epidemic.
Desmond said his deputies and New York State Police troopers are equipped with Narcan, an opiate antidote. Hodges said her organization is working to attract medical professionals that are licensed to prescribe Suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid addiction that combines buprenorphine and naloxone, the key ingredient in Narcan.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed a package of bills, including $189 million in the 2017 fiscal year budget, to combat the heroin and opioid addiction crisis. It’s unclear, however, how much of that money will make its way locally to Schoharie County.
Desmond said he just asked the county for money, around $55,000, to hire another police investigator, “to see what we can do to stop this or get a handle on it because it’s not going to get better on its own, I believe.”
State Assemblyman Pete Lopez (R-Schoharie), who represents Schoharie County, touted a recent report by Assembly Republicans that he said led to a lot of the legislation signed by Cuomo. But, he said, more funding and legislation is necessary.
“I continue to be just stunned, really, and saddened, by the impact this is having between the overdosing and the pervasiveness of [heroin],” said Lopez. “I know everyone is feeling the battle on all fronts.”
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette:
Categories: News, Schenectady County