Police and substance abuse professionals say that heroin, which in recent years has taken a backseat to prescription narcotics as the Hudson Valley’s opiate of choice, is once again resurgent in the region. While authorities can only speculate on what’s behind the drug’s comeback, some say that a new generation of addicts introduced to opiates through pills smuggled from parents’ medicine cabinets or prescribed by a doctor is increasingly turning to heroin as a cheap and readily available alternative.
“Opiate dependence is opiate dependence,” said Al Nace, who runs Kingston Hospital’s methadone treatment program. “Once it’s in your body, your brain doesn’t know the difference.”
Nace said his program, which treats 200 addicts using methadone to replace both heroin and prescription opiates, is emblematic of the trend. In the past, Nace said, heroin would fade into the background when prescription drugs became popular and vice versa. In the past year, however, he’s seen a spike in patients seeking treatment for heroin addiction without a corresponding drop in those who report addiction to prescription painkillers. Special Agent Erin Mulvey, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York field office, said heroin seizures have ebbed and flowed over the past decade. In 2009 the office logged 625 heroin arrests. In 2012, the number was 325. But she said it was impossible to tell if the decline reflected a waning popularity of the drug, or the efficacy of traffickers’ ever-evolving methods of moving product while evading detection.
Locally, cops say there’s no doubt that heroin is making a comeback. Since last summer, the Kingston Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit has arrested a number of heroin dealers from Poughkeepsie who traveled here to sell their wares. Last month, members of the county-wide Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team broke up a ring of Poughkeepsie-based drug dealers who allegedly sold heroin and ran prostitutes from a Highland motel.
“Heroin is on the increase — it’s actually beginning to supplant the prescription drugs,” said Undersheriff Frank Faluotico. “We see less cocaine, less crack cocaine, but all of the opiates are up.”
Dealers, not addicts
The vast majority of the heroin that reaches Ulster County is white powder produced in South America. The trend began in the 1990s, when Colombian drug cartels began slipping heroin into same smuggling and distribution networks used to move cocaine and marijuana. (Mexican brown or black tar heroin dominates in the western U.S. while, Mulvey said, Afghan heroin has made inroads in the heartland). The drug is typically cut and packaged downstate in doses of about one tenth of a gram, wrapped in paper and packaged in a heat-sealed glassine “deck.” On the streets of New York City or Plainfield, N.J., the decks typically sell for $10, less if the user buys a 10-deck “bundle.” Locally, prices vary from as low as $8 a deck for bulk purchases to $25 for a single deck.
In the past, cops say, the typical Ulster County heroin dealer was an addict who might get together enough cash to go to the Bronx or Plainfield, buy a few bundles, keep some for themselves and sell the rest to fellow addicts. The next week, out of cash and drugs, the erstwhile dealer would be buying from another member of the county’s relatively tight-knit community of heroin addicts.
But that dynamic has begun to change with the latest upswing in the drug’s popularity, say local narcotics cops. The Poughkeepsie-based dealers busted over the past year in Kingston and the ones picked up in the Highland motel raid are, by and large, say police, not addicts themselves. Many of the new wave of heroin dealers, cops say, have backgrounds in the cocaine or crack trade and have simply diversified their inventory in response to increased demand. And, cops say, they appear to operating on a larger, more sophisticated scale than the typical junkie dealers. Detective Sgt. Brian Robertson of Kingston’s SIU said that he doubted any of the Poughkeepsie dealers were making bulk purchases and doing their own cutting. But, he said, they had the wherewithal to buy, transport and sell locally 1,000-deck “bricks” of heroin.