HV Congresswoman Joins Westchester Officials in Combatting Heroin Use

May 27, 2014

Credit WAMC, Allison Dunne

A New York Congresswoman has announced she is joining the list of co-sponsors of a bill to combat heroin overdoses. Representative Nita Lowey was in Westchester County among local officials discussing ways to stem New York’s heroin epidemic.

Congresswoman Nita Lowey, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, is joining more than 30 co-sponsors of the Stop Overdose Stat Act. The SOS Act would establish a federal plan to combat drug overdose deaths and disseminate naloxone, or NARCAN, to state and local officials and train them on proper use. Naloxone is a drug commonly used to counteract overdoses from heroin and opioids. Lowey says the heroin problem is especially dire in New York.

“According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, heroin seized in our state accounts for more than one-third of heroin confiscated nationwide,” says Lowey. “And in New York City, the amount seized this year, has already surpassed all of last year. That’s why I’m calling on Congress to bolster efforts to combat heroin and drug overdoses.”

She adds:

“First and foremost, we must ramp up our efforts to prevent adolescents from using drugs,” Lowey says.

In September, Lowey helped secure $1.3 million in Drug Free Communities grants for 10 local organizations to prevent youth substance abuse, including $125,000 each for the Cortlandt Community Coalition and Mount Kisco Drug and Alcohol Prevention Council. Lowey also seeks an increase in funding for the so-called High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program to help stem the heroin epidemic in her district, which includes all of Rockland County.

“And I’m fighting to increase the Drug Free Communities grant program for Fiscal Year 2015 so that others may benefit from these important initiatives,” says Lowey.

Lowey says local leadership needs to tackle the problem head on, and she credits Cortlandt Town Supervisor Linda Puglisi with doing just that. Here’s Puglisi.

“It’s a very, very serious topic,” says Puglisi. “Heroin usage unfortunately, tragically has gone up. The cost of heroin has gone down. We very sadly, very tragically lost two young men in this year alone from heroin overdoses -- one 19 years old and one 23 years old.”

She says educating the community is key as is working with the three school districts in her town.

“And we feel strongly, as do the school superintendents and the school boards, and the town board, by the way, in making sure that the community, our 42,000 people in the Town of Cortlandt, are aware of the epidemic and the crisis,” Puglisi says. “It’s doubling in one and two years. What’s going to happen year, is it going to triple?”

Robert Kelly is director of the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office Intelligence Center.

“From the period of 2010-2013 we have seen almost 300 fatal overdoses in this county,” Kelly says. “That’s a staggering number for a county smaller than a million people.”

He says the problem occurs throughout Westchester, not favoring one area. Kelly says the district attorney’s office approaches the problem three ways.

“Enforcement as a deterrent for some, prosecution for the larger drug trafficking organizations,” says Kelly. “And certainly what is probably the most critical piece is intervention and treatment.”

Ellen Morehouse is executive director of Student Assistance Services, a non-profit Westchester-based substance-abuse prevention agency servicing schools and communities. She says young people using heroin generally fall into three groups.

“The first group is the group that is legitimately prescribed painkillers for serious injuries or illnesses. They become addicted to the painkillers. By the way, it only takes 2 ½ days of taking a drug like Vicodin regularly after an operation to develop a physical addiction.”

Group two, she says consists of adolescents who use alcohol and marijuana and seek a different kind of high. Morehouse says group three contains kids who have suffered abuse.

“And they turn to heroin to feel numb,” Morehouse says. “We need to do prevention for all three groups of kids.”

Dr. Shakeeb Hussain is a psychiatrist with the in-patient substance abuse and rehabilitation program at Phelps Memorial Hospital in Sleepy Hollow. He says prevention is the best tool, and public awareness is working.

“We’re starting to see people coming in earlier as opposed to waiting until they’ve hit rock bottom,” says Hussain.

While Congresswoman Lowey was in Westchester, New York state Senator David Carlucci, an Independent Democrat who is vice chair of the Senate’s Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction, was hosting the task force’s hearing in Rockland. The task force has been holding hearings across the state since the beginning of April.