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District Attorney Derek Champagne from Franklin County says treatment, not more arrests, is the best strategy for the heroin crisis.  Photo: Brian Mann
District Attorney Derek Champagne from Franklin County says treatment, not more arrests, is the best strategy for the heroin crisis. Photo: Brian Mann

Heroin fight shifts from "war" to public health

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This week, we're looking in-depth at the heroin epidemic that's hitting small towns in rural New York and Vermont (find more stories).

In many ways, the spread of cheap heroin in rural America mirrors the urban drug crisis of the 1970s that sparked America's national war on drugs.

But these days, even many police and prosecutors say they want a new approach, one that will send more addicts for treatment and recovery, with fewer men and women going to prison for lengthy sentences.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

I think you could allocate $500,000,000 today to law enforcement in New York state to cure or fix the heroin epidemic and it absolutely is not going to work.
Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne said many addicts, and even many dealers, need help.

"My investigator on Wednesday night received a call regarding a 17-year-old girl who was selling heroin to support her addiction. What system can we put in place for law enforcement when they receive these types of calls?"

Keep that image in mind. A 17-year-old girl, herself addicted to heroin, now working actively to spread the addiction to other kids, other addicts.

A new crisis, an old drug

The second idea to keep in mind is that we've been here before. It was heroin, four decades ago, that triggered America's national drug war.

"Our current situation may well devastate urban and rural areas if we don't find solutions," Champagne warned.

In the 1960s and '70s, heroin swept through urban neighborhoods like the Bronx and Harlem and new York's Upper West side, sparking widespread fear and anger.

In the decades that followed, New York and other states locked up hundreds of thousands of addicts and dealers, hoping to unravel the black market for heroin and other drugs.

But in 2014, the mood has shifted. Prosecutors like Champagne say arresting our way out of this latest epidemic is a nonstarter.

"I think that's the feeling of many prosecutors," he said. "I think you could allocate $500,000,000 today to law enforcement in New York state to cure or fix the heroin epidemic and it absolutely is not going to work."

Criminals who are also victims

Part of the problem, Champaigne says, is that 17-year-old girls shouldn't be on the fast track to prison. There are more humane, more compassionate responses.

But he also says heroin is just too widespread to be stopped through mass arrests, even in the small towns of Franklin County.

"We have user after user who has now turned into dealers. We're obviously not going to go arrest 20 or 30 people every day in a county with only 50,000 people."

This shift away from the traditional drug war that defined American policy for decades is happening around the U.S. and Washington, D.C.

"What heroin addicts and people addicted to opiates are facing is a public health issue, not a crime issue," said Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, speaking on PBS's Newshour.

 

Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation’s top law enforcement official, has sounded a similar tone, describing the resurgence of heroin as a public health emergency. "Enforcement alone won't solve the problem," he acknowledged.

Is the North Country equipped for this public health crisis?

So circle back now to that idea of a 17-year-old girl, addicted to heroin and now trying to get other people addicted to support her habit. If we're not going to arrest her, what do we do?

Right now, experts say the North Country has few healthcare resources. "We have students that are in withdrawal," said Dr. Kathleen Camelo who runs the student health program at SUNY Plattsburgh. "If you can't help them, they'll fall by the wayside and start searching for drugs."

Camelo, along with Champagne and a dozen others, testified before a state Senate panel on Friday.

This warning that the public health infrastructure just isn't in place to deal with the heroin crisis surfaced again and again. "If I have an arrest today and we make a determination that this is an individual that needs treatment, there may not be a bed available for that individual for days or weeks," said Andrew Wylie, the District Attorney in Clinton County.

There are some inpatient facilities in the North Country now, including the Canton-Potsdam Hospital program and St. Joseph's headquartered in Saranac Lake. But heroin addicts in many parts of the region are forced to travel long distances, to Albany or Syracuse.

New York Sen. Betty Little reaches to examine a sample of heroin confiscated in Clinton County, during a public hearing in Plattsburgh on Friday. Photo:  Brian Mann
New York Sen. Betty Little reaches to examine a sample of heroin confiscated in Clinton County, during a public hearing in Plattsburgh on Friday. Photo: Brian Mann
State Sen. Betty Little, who co-chaired Friday's hearing, said she'll work to find funding to make care more affordable and more available. "Heroin and prescription drug addiction is a public health crisis in desperate need of a comprehensive cure and solution," she said.

A surprising shift in America's drug war

Prosecutors and police say they will continue to make arrests and may even push for tougher penalties for the highest-level drug dealers. But during his testimony on Friday, Derek Champagne acknowledged a fundamental shift in tone and strategy.

"I'm a career prosecutor who is not asking for more police, I'm not asking for more prosecutors, and I'm not asking for more people to be arrested. Rather, I'm asking for coordination, I'm asking for assistance and I'm asking for new approaches," he said.

For now, public opinion surveys show that Americans want a more holistic approach to drug addiction, with two-thirds of those surveys calling for more inpatient care and therapists, fewer prisons and police. The test of this new attitude will come one addict, one small-time dealer, one 17-year-old girl at a time.

Experts say Vermont is ahead of New York is recognizing the rural heroin epidemic and starting to act. Tomorrow, we'll find out what Vermont is doing to help people escape the trap of heroin addiction.

Find the story of one North Country heroin addict, Shawn McKeen, who has struggled to stay clean for a decade, at NCPR.org.

 

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