New York lawmakers have introduced a set of bills to help fight heroin with tougher penalties for dealers, more funding for overdose-reversal drugs and increased better coverage for treatment.
The proposals released Monday follow forums that Senate Democrats held on the spread of the drug from New York City to small upstate communities and suburbs on Long Island.
The six bills would increase penalties for selling opioids — a class of drugs including heroin, oxycodone and hydrocodone — that result in death; equip first responders with overdose-reversal drugs; require health insurance providers to cover rehab programs and anti-addiction medication; create a public service announcement targeted at teenagers; and provide rehabilitation in communities.
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 more than doubled from 215 in 2008 to 478 in 2012, according to the state Health Department.
Patricia Farrell, a former sergeant at arms at the New York 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 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.
Law enforcement and addiction experts say Mexican drug cartels have flooded the market with heroin in the Northeast, with New York City as the hub. The drug, unlike its predecessor from the 1980s, is purer, 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 see fewer than 100 people a month. Last month, it 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 some younger users are choosing to inject heroin rather than snort it because the high is more immediate and intense.
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."
The Democratic conference is expected to issue a report of their findings on Tuesday. The Senate Majority — Republicans and a group of breakaway Democrats — are currently holding a series of forums statewide on heroin and opioid use.