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Shawn McKeen from Plattsburgh saw his life derailed, first by prescription drugs, then by street heroin.  Photo:  Brian Mann
Shawn McKeen from Plattsburgh saw his life derailed, first by prescription drugs, then by street heroin. Photo: Brian Mann

North Country heroin stuns small towns, wrecks lives

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Over the last few years, Vermont has grappled with a growing heroin epidemic. The drug's painful reach into small towns has drawn national headlines. Now there's growing awareness that heroin has also arrived in the North Country. The drug is cheaper and easier to find.

At a public hearing held by a new state Senate task force, formed in March, addicts, treatment experts, police and prosecutors talked about a wave of heroin.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/danielleellis55/13295727434/in/photolist-mfU5xU-mfS6bc-cenaT-Jyndv-4PsCEL-4KNJ9Q-65SpkG-5DbZz4-aDrE9x-aqV1pK-5SviVC-5xG6CF-gpwP73-j2iq6X-65G8XH-jFr6Gt-jFrmQz-jFrE2D-jFsgDv-jFsrcr-jFstic-jFsKi8-jFsKUM-jFsNXk-jFt4zt-jFtoD8-jFtp3W-jFtsqN-jFtvXg-jFtEgG-jFtHrE-jFtW9o-jFtYZJ-jFuhsb-jFunvA-jFuxkq-jFuRzw-jFvoAj-jFvV33-jFso6B-jFsPje-jFsRtp-jFsZkX-jFu469-jFu6w1-jFujoU-jFuAbW-jFv1au-jFvbsy-jFvoMJ">Danielle Sprags</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Photo: Danielle Sprags, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Shawn McKeen, who has struggled with addiction for more than a decade, told the panel that his fight with heroin began in a place most of us would recognize. 

"I grew up in Plattsburgh, middle class," he recalled.  "I had a really good childhood, a really good life."

When he was in his early 20s, a doctor prescribed hydrocodone for a pinched nerve in his neck.  The drug is an opioid – a pain killer like morphine or heroin that rewires the nervous system.  McKeen says it changed his life.

"That euphoric feeling that it gave me, I clung to it," he said.

McKeen graduated to oxycontin during the years when prescription opioids were still widely available in the North Country.  He says his craving grew and grew.  "After a while, using isn't fun anymore.  It's more necessary to survive."

After repeated tries at rehab clinics – including a stay at the Canton-Potsdam hospital’s program – McKeen finally got clean in 2008. 

He stayed off prescription drugs for two years,  graduated from college, became a professional counselor.  His life seemed back on track.

But in 2010, McKeen relapsed.  As he began searching for drugs again, he found that the black market in the North Country had changed.

"It was no longer pharmaceuticals that were in this town, it was heroin," he recounted.  "There are so many dealers that they're in competition with each other now."

McKeen told his story Friday at a public hearing in Plattsburgh held by a new state Senate task force organized to address the rural heroin epidemic.

I can't buy a 2-by-4 piece of lumber in my county any time after noon on Sunday, but I can buy heroin seven days a week any time of the day or night.
This idea that heroin is now widely available – cheap, easy to find – in even the smallest towns across the North Country was echoed by health care experts, police and prosecutors.

"I can't buy a 2-by-4 piece of lumber in my county any time after noon on Sunday, but I can buy heroin seven days a week any time day or night," said Derek Champagne is district attorney in Franklin County.

Champagne says the number of dealers  in his county skyrocketed over the last year – with the outbreak sort of going viral. "It's as if every user in my county has become a heroin dealer to support their habit."

This isn't the first time New York state ha grappled with heroin addiction.  In the 1970s, the  Rev. Oberia Dempsey campaigned against drugs in Harlem. Photo: Wikipedia
This isn't the first time New York state ha grappled with heroin addiction. In the 1970s, the Rev. Oberia Dempsey campaigned against drugs in Harlem. Photo: Wikipedia
A few years ago, addicts were forced to make long trips to Albany or Syracuse or even New York City to find heroin.  Matthew Bell, a detective with Plattsburgh police who specializes in drug enforcement, says now the drug is everywhere.

He told the story of a Plattsburgh family who found that their 18-year-old son was storing more than 500 bags of heroin in their house.  "This kid had just graduated from a local high school in Plattsburgh."

Andrew Wylie, district attorney in Clinton County, says the prevalence of heroin is starting to be measured in more arrests. A big bust last December led to roughly 40 prosecutions.

But he says there’ve also been more local people turning up at hospitals sick, or dying.  "Just within the last few weeks we had a young male who overdosed on heroin.  He was a star athlete at a local high school."

Shawn McKeen, who’s been clean again for almost a year, saw his girlfriend, Anna, die from medical complications relating to her heroin addiction.

He says he worries that far more North Country people will wind up caught in the same desperate hunger that wrecked his life.

"It's not just people from poverty that are doing it," McKeen warned.  "It's affecting this whole county and everybody in it."

State Senator Betty Little, who co-chaired Friday’s hearing, says the task force formed to look at New York’s new heroin epidemic will consider new legislation, which could include tougher penalties for dealers, and more funding for clinics and treatment.

NCPR is looking all this week at the heroin epidemic that's hitting small rural New York and Vermont towns. Find more stories here.

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