Laree Farrell-Lincoln seemed to have a bright future in store.
She was a cheerleader, a talented artist and an honor student at Colonie High School in the sprawling Albany County suburb, family members recalled. She pushed herself to graduate early and was awarded an advance Regents diploma at the age of 16.
She was spunky and free-spirited, with a knack for energizing any room she entered.
But she also had her demons — one of which was a heroin addiction.
In March, Farrell-Lincoln took a lethal dose of the drug. She died just five days before her 19th birthday — roughly four months after becoming addicted and as her family struggled to get her help.
Farrell-Lincoln’s story is one heard with alarming frequency as heroin gains an increasing foothold in the Capital Region. Local law enforcement and medical professionals say heroin use has surged in popularity recently, a trend that has frustrated them as they contend with the host of problems brought on by the powerful narcotic — addiction, overdoses, crime and ultimately deaths like Farrell-Lincoln.
Once heavily stigmatized, heroin has risen to prominence on the wave of the prescription drug craze. Casual and moderate users accustomed to popping narcotic pills — opiate drugs like Oxycodone and Hydrocodone — are now turning to heroin as a cheaper, more powerful alternative that is sometimes easier to acquire on the streets than prescription medication.
“The economics of heroin seem pretty simple,” explained Dr. Michael Dailey, an emergency room physician at Albany Medical Center and medical director for Colonie Emergency Medical Services. “It’s dropped in cost, the cost of pills have gone up in cost and the access to pills has gone down.”
And the heroin now flooding the market is stronger than ever. This means spikes in addiction, overdoses and deaths from its use.
“Now it’s much higher,” said the Rev. Peter Young, founder of a treatment program that now operates in dozens of communities across the Northeast. “It’s a greater purity, and it’s less expensive.”
Out of the city
These factors have extended the reach of heroin from the inner cities through suburbia and into the rural outskirts of the Capital Region. Once considered an urban problem, the scourge of heroin is now a problem in a broad cross-section of communities and an issue that is growing at a alarmingly rapid pace.
The reach of heroin recently garnered shock and attention when administrators in the Shenendehowa Central School District learned a 17-year-old high school senior had allegedly injected the liquid form of the drug into the arm of a 15-year-old boy on the district campus in Clifton Park, a predominantly middle-class suburban community in Saratoga County. Daniel Lewis denied injecting the drug into the boy, but police said he was found with the familiar trappings of narcotic use when he was searched, including several used needles, a pill cutter, waxy paper with heroin residue and a couple spoons.
Lewis was charged with felony injection of a narcotic drug, in addition to misdemeanor counts of possession of a controlled substance, endangering the welfare of a child and possession of a hypodermic instrument. The case is widely considered the first heroin arrest at a Saratoga County school district.
“That’s not to say we haven’t heard about it in the high schools,” District Attorney James Murphy III said.
Though the Shenedehowa arrest received widespread publicity, heroin abuse doesn’t often get much attention from the media. The drug’s local death toll is seldom reported, its victims’ names appearing only in obituaries in newspapers and online.
Farrell-Lincoln’s death from a heroin overdose in March didn’t come to light until her mother testified before a fact-finding forum hosted by the state Legislature’s Democratic minority last week. Likewise, the overdose death of 25-year-old Darin Turck in October 2012 received little attention and only because it happened at the Rotterdam branch of the Schenectady County Public Library, where Turck’s body was found in a bathroom by staff as they were closing for the evening.
Numbers don’t lie
Turck’s death came during a year when heroin overdoses spiked in the county. Prior to 2012, Ellis Medicine typically treated roughly a dozen heroin overdose, according to hospital officials. In 2013, the hospital has treated 25 cases so far.
Similarly, Albany Medical Center has seen a marked increase in heroin overdoses in recent years, from a five-year low of 28 in 2010 to a spike of 44 in 2011, officials said. Since August, the hospital has seen 38 heroin overdoses, putting 2013 on pace for more cases than any of the previous five years.
“We certainly see a lot of heroin overdoses,” said Dailey, the emergency room physician, “and we’re seeing more coming from the suburbs than we’ve ever seen before.”
Colonie Police Chief Steven Heider said his officers have roughly tripled the number of heroin-related arrests they make each year in town. He estimated the town now registers nearly 200 heroin overdoses annually.
“It’s a misnomer for anybody to say it’s coming to the ’burbs,” he said. “It’s already here.”
Not that suburbia is the only place where heroin has taken root. Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple has seen the narcotic affecting rural communities, too.
“It’s everywhere now,” he said. “The one thing about heroin is that it doesn’t discriminate.”
The apparent popularity of the drug seems to be the result of several factors. The drug that was once largely imported from Afghanistan is now being processed in Mexico, riding some of the same networks that bring cocaine into major cities.
Only the new stream of heroin is more pure, said Murphy, the Saratoga County district attorney, making it far easier for a user to get hooked and overdose.
“Producers are investing money in ways to make it better, more potent — more refined,” he said.
The price per bag is also startlingly low, which means it’s often cheaper for a user to purchase heroin than prescription pills. One dose of heroin can cost as little as $7.
“You can buy a pill out there for $10 or a bag of heroin for seven,” Apple said.
Prescription pills are also becoming harder to traffic. State legislation — such as the recently enacted Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing Act — has increased the monitoring of prescription drugs as they are dispersed, while manufacturers are now producing pills that aren’t easily crushed, making them much more difficult to be dissolved and injected.
Spreading the word
Meanwhile, prevention efforts seem to have lagged. While it’s common to see public service announcements about smoking, there’s hardly ever a campaign to dissuade youth from trying heroin.
“Heroin no longer carries the stigma it had when we were younger,” said Gregory Sears, a program director at the Eleanor Young Clinic in Albany.
As a result, Sears said he’s seeing a younger crowd of addicts. He said many seem almost oblivious to the dangers when they first start using.
“Kids are using it early,” he said. “They’re not only using it, they’re using it intravenously. It’s almost like they think it’s a fad.”
Contending with a growing heroin epidemic is no easy task. The spike in addiction has flooded area treatment facilities, meaning even those who want help are left with few options, Sheriff Apple said.
Apple recalled a teenager he coached in baseball for years developing a heroin addiction and the struggle he faced trying to find placement in an in-patient treatment center. He said many places he contacted for the boy’s family asked him to wait as much as three weeks before they could find him a bed.
“I said ‘This kid is going to be dead in a couple days,’ ” he recalled.
Young said combating heroin will require a combination of stepping up prevention efforts and adding rehabilitation services. He said the system that exists today is stressed in both the Capital Region and beyond.
“I’ve been talking to other providers from out of state, and they’re inundated,” he said. “It’s a widespread problem, and it’s not going to go away.”