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Awareness about Heroin in our Community

Concerned citizens of the Vestal community gathered at Vestal High School for a panel discussion on the issue of heroin in our community the evening of January 21. The dialogue was presented by Vestal Central School District and community partners: Vestal High School PTO; Vestal Police Benevolent Association; The Brandon Youngstrom Foundation; Vestal Rotary; and Broome Country Legislators Kim A. Myers - District 4, Daniel J. Reynolds - District 5 and Kelly Wildoner - District 3. The committee at Vestal High School who helped coordinate this event would like to offer special thanks to Jill Alford-Hammitt, BS, CPP-G, substance abuse prevention program manager at Lourdes Youth Services, who was very instrumental in putting this program together.

Panelists who spoke included Sergeant Christopher Streno of the Vestal Police Department. Sgt. Streno shared with the audience that heroin in our community is the biggest problem that law enforcement has identified for over the last 10 years. He explained how it leads to other issues in society, including an increase in property crimes such as burglary and shoplifting. He indicated that Vestal Police officers are trained in drug interdiction techniques, or strategies/tactics they can use to identify and disrupt heroin activity in the community. However, as the evening went on and the other panelists took the stage, they made it clear that this issue is not resolved by one tool alone, but that a formula of law enforcement, treatment and education together is the only hope we have at eradicating the heroin problem.

Captain Patrick Garey, administrative captain for the New York State Police’s Troop C in Sidney, New York, was the next law enforcement panelist to take the podium. He shared information on assets within the New York State Police established specifically to combat the narcotics problem. For 15 years he was commander of the Southern Tier’s State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team (CNET), and he spoke of his professional experience with that agency. But, Capt. Garey also spoke personally of the toll that heroin takes on not just the community, but on families. He explained how addicts have lost control over their own lives and stated that “heroin will take your soul.”

His blunt advice to parents? Throw out the concept that your kids can have privacy. Parents must educate themselves, and he was not the only panelist to make this point. He urged parents to not just trust their kids, but to trust and then verify. Later in the evening, audience members were able to submit questions to be answered by the expert panelists. He responded to the question – “Why can’t they just stop?” with personal feeling. He explained that he felt the same way. He had been on numerous drug raids, and he had no mercy for the addicts he arrested. He had felt the same way, that they deserved to be punished; that they got themselves into this situation. However, he said his attitude changed when a beloved family member became addicted to heroin. He knew then that it wasn’t an issue of choice.

Rounding out the law enforcement perspective and bringing the discussion to the treatment aspect of this issue was Broome County Assistant Attorney Carole Cassidy with the Broome County District Attorney’s Office. She talked about two resources in the community for those battling heroin addiction – The Broome Opioid Abuse Council and the Binghamton Adult Treatment Court. The Drug Treatment Court is for those facing criminal charges whose crimes, it has been determined, are a result of their addiction to narcotics. One “graduate” of the Binghamton Adult Treatment Court commented “It was that arrest that saved my life, because I couldn’t stop myself.”

Ms. Cassidy reiterated what other panelists stated that evening, “I don’t think one (entity) can do it alone. Treatment can’t do it alone… Law enforcement can’t do it alone… Education can’t do it alone…”

The first treatment expert of the evening was John Barry, executive director of the Southern Tier AIDS program. He talked about his agency’s syringe exchange program, calling it a “public health intervention.” He acknowledged that he is often challenged about offering such a program and answered the unspoken “why do it?” question:

"Why?.. Number one, compassion. I was taught that even those behaving in a way we don’t approve of deserve our compassion. Number two, money. This program prevents HIV and Hepatitis C infections. (The cost of just one person treated for Hep C can range from $100,000 - $150,000 annually.) The cost of the syringe exchange program is just a fraction of the cost of HIV/Hep C treatments."

And, countering the argument that more heroin treatment programs should be offered rather than the syringe exchange program, he explained that a staggering 80 percent of people who participate in the syringe exchange program have already been through treatment at least once, and some two or three times. As experts to follow explain, escaping the trap of heroin addiction is difficult.

Alan Wilmarth of UHS/New Horizons explains the science of why overcoming opioid dependence is such a challenge. With a few PowerPoint slides, he helped those present understand heroin’s effects on the human brain. He showed slides of the pre-frontal cortex, and the area responsible for judgement. When someone introduces a mood-altering substance into their body, it impacts the brain in ways no other chemical does. There is an actual physiological response to opioids, which changes the human brain. He displayed CT scans of a normal brain, the brain of someone who had heroin just a few weeks prior to the scan, and the brain of a recovering heroin addict, four years after taking heroin. The changes in the brain were evident, and it was shocking to see how long it takes the brain to heal from the effects of opioids in your system.

On another note, he shared insight for parents concerned about their child’s susceptibility to becoming exposed to addiction. He said, unequivocally, “being a parent means being a pain in your adolescent’s or young adult’s life.”

He also advised parents not to let any health care professional prescribe a pain medication to their child that contains any opioids. (Please refer to the "List of Abused Pharmaceutical Substances" in the right menu.)

The last two panelists of the evening showed the personal, painfully human effects of heroin addiction. The first, Lisa Bailey, is the parent of a child addicted to heroin. Her comments were the raw voice of many family members out there, watching their loved ones suffer from the many dangers this addiction brings. This includes, in her child’s case, overdosing several times, and also almost dying from tainted heroin mixed with rat poison. And even though her child has been through treatment and, at this point, remains addicted, she was also the voice of one who does not give up. “You don’t give up hope for your child, because that’s what a parent does.”


However, she made clear, it was not an easy battle to win, and one that she and her husband continue to fight. “Heroin owns you, and it doesn’t let you go,” she said.

Despite her devotion to her son’s recovery, (she and her husband have started their own support group, Valley ADE - "Addiction & Drug Education”), she remains realistic, telling the audience “I can’t beat my son’s addiction for him.”

She had authentic advice for parents. Get educated and trust your gut. If you feel like something is wrong, it probably is, so look for the signs and find out what’s going on.

Finally, the petite young lady sitting at the end of the table waiting politely for her turn to speak looked like the former parochial school cheerleader she once was. What she shared with the audience is that she is also a recovering heroin addict. Caitlyn described her journey from occasionally taking prescription drugs at school between classes (beginning at the age of 14), to moving on to “harder” drugs and finally, injecting heroin, something she swore she would never do. Her statements were shocking for parents to listen to. She said that most of the time, she was able to get drugs at school. After graduation, she trained for a career in cosmetology and found a job she loved as a hair stylist. However, at age 21, after the death of a beloved aunt, she began using prescription drugs on a daily basis. She said, “I thought I could handle it. I thought it would be okay, and I could stop when I needed to.”

Instead, she spiraled into a nightmare, changing jobs, and finally quitting a position with her last hair salon, even though the co-workers there enabled (and even shared) her addiction. She said that she was terrified to ask for help and admitted “my every thought became about heroin and shooting up…”

Caitlyn became engaged in numerous criminal activities to support her habit and said, “When I made the decision to use heroin, my morality went out the window.”

She told those present that if you use these drugs, opioids, they will take everything you have and everything you are, robbing you of the essence of self. Her matter-of-fact recitation of her devolution because of her addiction was terrifying, as was her calm statement that “I accepted the fact that I would most likely die of an overdose.”

We were happy to hear her end her presentation by stating “Today I am two years sober.”

She received a long and heart-felt standing ovation. We knew, after all we’d learned that night, that it wasn’t easy, and that she is one of the lucky ones.