Heroin problem creeps into the Southern Tier

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March 25, 2014

Heroin is becoming a nationwide epidemic and the Southern Tier is no exception. Deaths from heroin and drugs like it have more then doubled in the past year.

Thomas Kimble is a deputy with the Chemung Sheriff Department.

“We’re going to go to a location where we have suspected use of heroin. So I am going to go by there and see what’s going on,” says Kimble as he drives past a known drug house in a rural neighborhood just outside of Elmira.

It’s the middle of the night and Kimble scans the aged mobile home for any signs of suspicion. On this pass, everything seems quiet. 

When he started on the force 8 years ago, Kimble never saw heroin. But things have changed.

“I’ve seen it first hand. It’s talked about on the street a lot. It’s going hand and hand with meth also," adds Kimble. "With the increase in meth brought in heroin also and a lot more needle type drugs." 

Kimble says the increase has a lot to do with the region being a crossroads in the state. Most of the drugs are coming from New York City and Pennsylvania. The dealers have, for a long time, passed right through the Southern Tier on their way to Rochester or Toronto.

“They started realizing why are they competing in the big cities when they could come to the smaller to mid-range sized cities and start their own little dealership down here and that’s what they’ve been doing,” says Kimble. 

A month ago, the City of Binghamton seized more than $14,000 worth of heroin and about $4000 in cash. The bust came after a traffic stop led police to a drug house in Johnson City.

Between 2012 and 2013, the number of drug related deaths rose from 13 to 31. And Christopher Ryan, from the Broome County Health Department, says that trend doesn’t look any better for 2014.

“If we were to project, which is always a difficult thing to do, it certainly would not have gone down any,” says Ryan.

And a similar increase has been seen across the entire Southern Tier.

Ryan says more people are becoming addicted to prescription drugs first. But state regulators have tightened access to those drugs.

“Their brain cells are very use to having these opioid molecules stuck to them," states Ryan. "Well, it’s a very addicting thing and people are highly motived to seek out opioids from other sources.”

Dealers will often mix in fentanyl, a stronger opioid that increases the high. But being more powerful also makes it easier to overdose.

In addition to arresting people, law enforcement is taking on a new role - saving people from overdoses with a drug called Narcan.

Ralph Wilcox is an EMS worker in Tompkins County. He’s showing off Narcan, which can be used to bring back someone who’s overdosed.

"So there is a cartridge like that with a needle in it," explains Wilcox. "And we can usually start an IV with what’s called an IV lock. So we have a short little line that goes into a vein and then push it.”

Narcan counteracts the heroin’s affects on the brain and can stop an overdose in a matter of minutes. Wilcox says it works almost like magic.

“So you’re have somebody near death suddenly you’ll see their breath start to speed up a little bit," says Wilcox. "And they might cough a little bit. The next thing you know they sit straight up, like, wow what happened?”

Until recently, only medical personnel could use Narcan. But the Broome County Sheriffs Department has started carrying it, and one officer used Narcan recently to save a 27-year-old woman who was overdosing on heroin.

The sheriffs departments in Chemung and Tompkins counties will start carrying the drug soon.

Ryan says local authorities also need to expand access to treatment and recovery programs to effectively bring down the number of heroin deaths. He says it will take a while to see a reduction, but he’s hopeful that change will come.