'No Question It's Gotten Worse': A Look Inside Ithaca's Heroin Epidemic
Bill Rusen, the chief executive officer of Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services (CARS), has seen a dramatic rise in numbers of heroin-addicted clients. CARS serves a 21-county region that includes all of New York State west of I-81.
His organization assembled statistics for their client population between 2007 and 2012. In 2007 only 13.4 percent of them checked in with heroin or opiates as their primary addiction. By 2012 heroin users accounted for 48.1 percent of their intake population, an increase of 35 percent. The SAMHSA national survey showed that first-time users of heroin increased from 373,00 in 2007 to 669,000 in 2012. With nearly half the clients now primarily involved with opiates, CARS also saw an increase in the portion of their population in the 19- to 25-year-old bracket; it rose from 20.9 to 36.9 percent between 2007 and 2012.
Clinical Director Michelle Ellis has seen the portion of her clientele at the Alcohol and Drug Council with heroin as primary substance of abuse at admission to outpatient treatment rise from 5 percent in 2008 to 19.3 percent (so far) in 2014. Clients who are injecting drugs (mostly heroin) increased from 6 percent to 18.2 percent between 2008 and halfway through 2014. (A small portion of her clients are snorting heroin.)
In response to the explosion of use, New York State recently added 100 officers to the state police drug units.
According to an investigator in the sheriff’s department, the Ithaca Police Department has three or four people focused on narcotics investigations. (The Ithaca Police Department has one sergeant and two investigators on the Special Investigations Unit; narcotics is only one of their responsibilities.) The entire investigative unit in the sheriff’s department—they don’t have a dedicated narcotics unit—consists of five investigators, one deputy, and a lieutenant.
The IPD, state police, and the sheriff’s department work together closely, starting early on in most investigations.
According to the sheriff’s investigator, “All of us have the same knowledge and training, but we need help handling the controlled buys; we need someone to observe and document it.” At the local level, drug investigations move forward through traffic stops that identify people as driving while under the influence and in possession. While this method catches users, sellers are tracked down through informants.
Also on the front lines of the drug war—but on the opposite side from the police—are the drug users themselves. One former heroin user, who asked to be identified only as Vicki, spoke about her observations of the increase in heroin use in the Ithaca area, saying, “Oh my god, it’s an epidemic. No question it has gotten worse.”
Another former user, Chelsey, concurred, adding that along with the increase in the number of users has come an increase in the number of overdose deaths. She said, “Probably two dozen people I know have overdosed and died in the past few years.”
Tish, also a local recovering heroin addict, also spoke about the increase in overdose deaths. Earlier this year, Tish was hospitalized for “40 plus days” for a Staphylococcus aureus infection resulting from her intravenous heroin use.
“While I was in the hospital, eight people overdosed and died. Some weren’t from this area, but about five of them were.” Updated: 1:15 pm, Wed Jun 18, 2014.
By Keri Blakinge