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Cooking heroin. Experts say the drug is cheap and easy to find in the North Country. Photo: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Heroin.JPG">Psychonaught</a>, public domain
Cooking heroin. Experts say the drug is cheap and easy to find in the North Country. Photo: Psychonaught, public domain

Hooked on heroin, searching for treatment

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This week, North Country Public Radio has been looking at the rapid spread of heroin in rural New York (find those stories here). It's easy to find and cheap to buy and experts say it's ruining people's lives at an unprecedented rate.

But this isn't the first time heroin has surged in the North Country's small towns. A decade ago, rural heroin spiked in small towns and college campuses across the region. Today, we're returning to Brian Mann's story from 2004 about two recovering heroin addicts struggling to find methadone treatment, driving long-distance to Syracuse.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Reporter's notebook: What Brian thinks about this story, 10 years later

I do a lot of stories in a year, and this report first aired a decade ago on NCPR and NPR (hear the story by clicking "listen" above). But that trip in the car with Donald and Kerry really stuck with me. Heroin is a scary drug. It's incredibly seductive, fun and euphoric at first, then awesomely destructive and hard to kick later on.

On the drive to Syracuse with those two, I remember thinking how trapped they seemed, how completely the hunger for heroin still shaped their lives, even as they were trying to kick it. But they still seemed like real people. Sometimes "junkies" can seem truly alien and frightening, especially when under the influence of heroin or suffering from cravings.

Donald and Kerry were incredibly human. And after spending time with them I completely adopted the idea that addicts are sick. They're suffering from a physical, biological event every bit as severe as, say, tuberculosis or AIDs. I think there's real promise in treating individuals like them with medical care, rather than long-term prison sentences.

One sad thing about re-airing this story is that we usually try to track down the people in our reports when we plan to do a rebroadcast like this. But I couldn't find either of them. I hope Donald or Kerry are both doing okay.

Part of the difficulty is that to protect their privacy, we only used first names and a lot of my detailed notes about the project have been lost. If anyone knows about Kerry or Donald, where they are or how they fared over the last ten years, I'd love to hear about them. My email is brian@ncpr.org.

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
What's changed?

So what's changed over the decade between Donald and Kerry's story and my story this week about Shawn McKeen, a young Plattsburgh man struggling with his heroin addiction?

I'd have to say that the game-changer has been the widespread availability of prescription opioid drugs that experts say served as a kind of on-ramp or "gateway" to full blown heroin use. A lot of people across the U.S. and here in rural New York, people who would likely never have stuck a needle in their arms otherwise, got hooked on pharmaceuticals like Hydrocodone and Oxycontin.

When supplies of those drugs were locked down by new state and Federal laws, opioid addicts found heroin dealers ready and waiting to supply their habit.

My hope is that this will prove to be a temporary surge, a one-time cycle of prescription drug abuse and full-blown heroin addiction that won't repeat over and over again. But it's hard to say. Heroin has been around for a long, long time and New Yorkers have battled it before. Back in the 1970s it was a wave of heroin addiction that sparked America's 40-year drug war.

NY Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins at the podium along with other speakers speaking about legislation that would help address the growing opiate addiction in New York. Photo: Karen DeWitt
NY Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins at the podium along with other speakers speaking about legislation that would help address the growing opiate addiction in New York. Photo: Karen DeWitt
This time, the public policy response in New York and Vermont seems to be avoiding some of the pitfalls of that first epidemic. As we reported on Tuesday, there's more talk of treatment, less talk of arresting our way out of the problem.

But I suspect that this won't be an easy road, for individuals like Donald and Kerry, for families of those suffering addiction, or for North Country towns, many of them poorly equipped for this kind of crisis.

NCPR plans to keep reporting on this over the weeks and months ahead and we look forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback. What are you seeing in your community? Is New York responding appopriately?

Are your loved ones receiving the care that they need?

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