Voices of addiction speak to hundreds

John Christensen
Paul Marron, admissions director at Tully Hill Treatment Center addresses a large crowd at Penn Yan Academy during the Sept. 30 forum on heroin issues in the community.

The Community Heroin Forum hosted last Tuesday by the newly formed Yates Substance Abuse Coalition drew a crowd of over 300 concerned citizens. The Penn Yan Academy Auditorium was abuzz with shared stories of drug abuse in Yates County before the speakers even began.

Voice of Authority

Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike began with a wealth of shocking information about local heroin use. Since 2012 there have been six deaths in Yates County caused by heroin overdose; three of them with the needle still in the victim’s arm. The latest one was just two days before the forum. That victim, a 45-year-old woman in the town of Jerusalem, surprised Spike even further because most heroin users are between 18 to 25 years old.

Spike told of the remarkable increase of heroin users, a 75 percent increase in the last few years, saying it has replaced other opiate drugs Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet, and Hydrocodone. It has risen so steeply that half of the referrals to The Finger Lakes Addictions Counseling & Referral Agency are now for heroin and other opiate addiction.

Spike described the downward spiral of drug use; usually from alcohol and marijuana to illegally obtained opiate prescription drugs, and then to heroin. Whether smoked, snorted, or injected, the tolerance to the drug’s effect rises and requires an ever increasing dose to obtain the high. But here is where that darkest corner of heroin addiction lies – once the addict descends to injected heroin and feels that “rush” of the drug, that feeling becomes impossible to replicate, no matter how much is taken, driving many addicts to overdose.

The use of heroin has prompted a statewide initiative to provide and train all law enforcement officers with Narcan or Naloxone kits to help save overdose cases. It has also prompted the passage of the “Good Samaritan Law.” Some fear that police will respond to a 911 call and there will be criminal charges for themselves or for the person who overdosed. Spike says those fears should never keep anyone from calling 911 immediately.

In 2011, the 911 Good Samaritan Law went into effect to address those fears. It provides legal protection against criminal charges and prosecution for possession of controlled substances, as well as possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. This protection applies to both the person seeking assistance in good faith, as well as to the person who has overdosed. Class A-1 drug felonies, as well as sale or intent to sell controlled substances, are not covered by the law.

Spike concluded with a long list of local heroin incidents and related crimes. Addicts who become less able to function and earn a living, so they turn to crimes like burglary and forgery to keep up with their habit. Often they become drug dealers themselves — another conduit for heroin to reach Yates County

Voice of experience

Former NFL and local football legend Tony Collins was the keynote speaker and conveyed his powerful message of the individual’s responsibility in drug use. “Before it’s an addiction, it’s a choice,” he says. He recounted his own early choices in Penn Yan that led to his success on the gridiron and to his meteoric rise within professional football. But it was a later choice, to begin taking opiate pain killers after a rib injury that he looks back on with regret. “I wanted to keep my number one slot, so I made that choice,” he said.

As his increasing dosage began to cause nausea, he says he made another choice to listen to a teammate who recommended he smoke some marijuana to reduce the nausea and keep his appetite. “I started hanging out with people and in places I shouldn’t have.” From there, with his judgment ever more impaired, Collin’s choices grew worse and he found himself without a career and addicted to cocaine. “Every time I thought about cocaine, I could taste it and I had to get it,” he explained.

Collins credits remembering the tough lessons he learned from his parents and the love and support of his wife with getting and keeping him clean and sober, but says he stayed away from Penn Yan and his college in South Carolina for 18 years because he was ashamed. When he finally returned to Penn Yan he says he was never made to feel that way. The people here showed only their love for him and shared their good memories with him. “I was here after the floods this spring, and I saw how our town came together. We need to do the same with this problem. Never in a million years would I have believed heroin would become a problem in Penn Yan. We’re the Penn Yan Mustangs! We can’t be known for heroin,” he says. Pledging a portion of his book sales to the YSAC, Collins said, “God spared my life. I should be dead two or three times. God spared my life so I could be here. We are going to stop this. I believe it, but it has to be all of us together.” That sentiment met with thunderous approval from the assembled public.

Voice of recovery

Next, Tully Hill Treatment Center counsellor Jameson Wood, a recovering heroin addict himself, recounted his life in St. Lawrence County as very similar to what he sees in Yates County. “Addiction knows no color or income level,” he says, admitting how he became addicted to opiate pain killers after a shoulder injury in college. He stressed the powerlessness of addicts in the face of their addiction. “All your morals go out the window to do whatever to get high. Addiction isn’t bad people trying to be good, it’s sick people trying to get better.”

In his advice to parents, Wood stands by the tough love method of reporting and arrest, or banishing from the home if drug abuse continues. “We can love our children to death,” said Wood.

Twelve step programs like Tully Hill’s have been instrumental in the recovery of many addicts and have proven their effectiveness, according to many law enforcement and drug treatment professionals. But even when insurance companies say they cover such treatment, it is often for an insufficient time, denying the claim calling heroin addiction “a non-life threatening condition.”

Voice of a parent

Penn Yan parents whose families have been damaged by their child’s heroin addiction spoke of Tully Hill and FLACRA with praise and thanks, but they cannot forget what the addiction has done to them. Dorothy Volz recalled with horror her daughter screaming when she found her younger brother overdosed in his room, and how she brought her own son back to life with CPR. She credits Tully Hill for his continued survival. Gail Jensen spoke of the “heartache, helplessness, frustration, guilt, physical and emotional pain that comes with having a child addicted to heroin. Not knowing where he was, when he is coming home, if I will get a knock on the door from a law enforcement person telling me my son was dead. I have a knot in my stomach day in and day out not knowing where he is.”

Voice of addiction

The youngest speaker of the evening was a 20-year-old Penn Yan man, who spoke of his beginning drug use at 14 years old with beer and marijuana, and experimenting with a wide variety of drugs over the course of his teen years. The young man spoke openly of his drug deals in Rochester and of bringing drugs back to Penn Yan. He and his mother both spoke, as did the other parents, of the incredible lies and deceptions heroin addicts use against their own families and anyone else who tries to help them; stealing money from bank accounts with ATM cards or forged checks, or pawning their mother’s jewelry or their father’s tools to pay for more and more drugs.

Along with the blame he placed on himself, he also criticized law enforcement and the probation department for not being harder on addicts and know dealers. His mother too recounted what she perceives as a lack of response from the Sheriff’s Department when she tried to report her son’s drug use.

He says that as a juvenile and youthful probationer, he was never drug tested by his probation officer. While not responding to his individual case, Probation Dept. Director Sharon Dawes did say that when a probationer is in treatment with FLACRA, Probation does not test them, nor do they test those who admit using drugs. She went on to say their test only shows positive or negative results, while FLACRA’s urine screening shows more detailed levels. “Duplicating those tests would be a waste of time and taxpayers money,” she explains, stressing that the department is in daily contact with FLACRA and has monthly face-to-face meetings about probationers in treatment.

Perhaps the surprise speaker of the evening was former Penn Yan Police Chief Gene Mitchell, who admitted his own son, Patrick, is a recovering heroin addict. He said despite Patrick’s upbringing, his intelligence, and his academic success, heroin took hold of him in college, and now in his 30s, still won’t let go. With his permission, Mitchell shared a statement from Patrick: “This is a deadly serious issue that needs to be refocused as a community and mental health issue. We need to stop wasting resources on criminalizing a problem that has been a 40-year-long failed war. Education and treatment are where limited resources should be going, in addition to going after the actual dealers. Law enforcement needs to focus on going up the ladder to get the suppliers.”

The committee continues to meet and is working on a course of education in the schools and community with the cooperation of law enforcement and health agencies. For more information about the effort, contact Kathy Swarthout at Yates County Public Health at 315-536-5160 or Mike Ballard at Council on Alcoholism and Addictions at 315-789-0310.