September 16, 2014

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Rockland County officials target heroin and prescription drug abuse

WEST NYACK – Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe and County Executive Edwin Day announced on Monday that the county would pursue a three-pronged action plan to combat recent surges in heroin and prescription drug abuse.

Zugibe, left, listens as Day explains the new program

According to Zugibe, the plan would integrate targeted enforcement of the law to weed out drug traffickers, treatment through both legal and medical channels and an education campaign for prosecutors, law enforcement, educators and students.

The heroin epidemic has hit home in not only low-income areas but in middle- and upper-class areas as well. According to Day, a collaborative effort is necessary to address the nuances and tragedies of opiate abuse which now cuts across socioeconomic boundaries which were once believed to be impervious.

“The reality is that I have been to a number of funerals already where we have buried young people,” Day said. “Some of those young people are children of friends of mine. Some are kids that over the 20 years of coaching I have coached. It needs to be recognizes that one puts effort into our young people and we lose them in such a manner, it warrants our immediate attention. That is what is happening now.”

Zugibe explained the plan will involve an individual focus with heavier involvement from medical or law enforcement professionals depending upon whether an individual in the drug trade is motivated by addiction or profit.

For those who do not sell drugs or do so only to feed their own habits, a focus on treatment will be pursued and law enforcement will serve in only a supportive role. Zugibe said that in the past, the drug courts have seen some success in lowering recidivism rates, but require additional screening procedures to assist those who might have fallen through the cracks and wound up in the criminal justice system without treatment.

According to Ruth Bowles of the Rockland Council on Alcoholism and Other Drug Dependence Inc., recovery efforts often fail due to inconsistencies in treatment, particularly in managed care where waiting lists and non-coverage by insurers can result in service denials in even emergency cases.

“There is not sufficient treatment,” Bowles said. “There is not a continuum of treatment that will sustain sobriety for these people.”

To address users only tangentially linked to the drug trade, the DA's office will continue to seek alternatives to incarceration. Prosecutors will also interact with addiction specialists at the Department of Health, Nyack Hospital, Good Samaritan Hospital, the RCADD, and other agencies to inform and assist addicts and determine the appropriate options for individuals brought in by law enforcement.

In recent years, Rockland has been hit hard by an influx of heroin and prescription painkillers, much of which flow north from distribution hubs in New York City and Paterson, New Jersey. Sixteen individuals died of overdose deaths in Rockland County this year alone.

There has also been a surge in the number of those seeking treatment for heroin, with New York's Open Data website showing 67 individuals in opioid treatment clinics in 2012, an increase from 35 individuals in 2011 and 50 individuals in 2011.

County drug courts have also been the subject of some renewed interest, though their use appears to have dropped in recent years. According to the Rockland DA's 2013 report, 60 individuals were admitted to Rockland's felony drug courts in 2013, down from 100 in 2012. The county's relatively new misdemeanor drug court saw a similar drop from 47 referrals in 2012 to 20 in 2013.

For RCADD board member Michael Zall, the difficulties of opiate treatment are particularly painful. Zall's son died of an overdose last year after over 20 years of prescription painkiller abuse. Zall's argument is that not only must treatment be available, but that such options must be spoken about openly and without fear or stigma.

“You have to get out, talk to your neighbors, talk to your friends because they all have the same problem except they are not talking about it,” Zall said.


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