What can be done about the Hudson Valley heroin epidemic?

(Will Dendis)

(Will Dendis)

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Drug addiction is famously difficult to treat. Many addicts go in and out of a addiction treatment center several times before hitting the proverbial rock bottom that motivates them to dig in and fight their dependence on drugs. But as one teenager asked at a Nov. 16 public forum on the local drug epidemic, “What about preventing it?”

Approaches to prevention in our community include trying to dry up supply by putting drug dealers behind bars, providing more activities to engage young people, mental health counseling for anxiety and depression, and teaching students about the effects of drug use. Law enforcement officials and educators have their hands full as they work against the influx of cheap heroin and the widespread prescription of opiate painkillers that appear to lead many people into addiction.


Woodstock police chief Clayton Keefe appealed to the public for help in identifying drug dealers. “There have been drugs around town for many years,” he said. “It’s hard to get cooperation from people to work with us. We can have suspicions, but we have to get proof. Any member of the community who knows of drug activity, they’re invited to come forward and talk to us. It can be confidential, but we certainly need the public’s help.” With a report by an eyewitness to drug activity, the police can obtain a search warrant, but mere suspicion is not legal grounds to take action, said Keefe.

He attended the November forum, held at Woodstock Town Hall, about which he commented, “It came out that everyone there acknowledges there is a drug problem here, and heroin is our worst type of drug presently. Once addicted, it’s tough to get off. I would like to see more activities for young people, so they never get started on drugs. The town used to have a bowling alley, youth groups, roller skating rinks. I’m not saying that’s not happening, but it’s limited what kids can do.”

Keefe also urged family members to notice differences in behavior in their young people that might point to drug use and try to get kids help early in the process. “Groups out there are willing to work with people,” he said. “Family of Woodstock has been very supportive. They’ve done a lot for our community.” Family directs people to agencies available to assist with mental health and drug problems.


DA’s view

Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright said heroin use “is one of our most serious health threats right now. We are engaged with a number of different agencies involved in undercover narcotics investigations. About 20 percent of our felony case load is drug sales and possession.”

Drug-related arrests occur either as a result of other incidents — such as searching a car stopped for a traffic violation — or through direct investigations into drug activity. “Heroin comes up from New Jersey or into Poughkeepsie and over the bridge,” Carnright said. “It’s across different types of environments, not just relegated to inner cities or poor people. High school kids, wealthy families, it’s across the board.”

The D.A.’s office has been successful in prosecuting cases once suspected dealers are arrested. “In most of the undercover work,” said Carnright, “the officers are quite accomplished. They generally have recordings that go along with the arrest. They seldom base an arrest solely on [the testimony of] the purchaser.” The county cannot afford to have statisticians to track crime, so Carnright could not cite figures on local drug arrests and prosecutions. He did say the two areas with the most arrests are the City of Kingston and Ellenville.

Carnright spoke of the recent spate of deaths from overdose, observing, “The health risk heroin presents today is that it’s inexpensive, readily available, and more pure. The people using it are not ready for the medical effects.” He explained that heroin dealers sometimes tout their supplies as “the best on the market” by mixing it with fentanyl, a much more potent prescription pain-killer, which can lead users to overdose on quantities they would normally be able to tolerate.

Carnright is a believer in education as prevention. “We spend a lot of time trying to educate the public, going around to schools to try to get them to be active in education. It has to be more than scare tactics. People need warnings and information. A few decades ago, we didn’t know about breast cancer or the risks of cigarette smoking, and the community at large got behind a campaign to say, ‘This stuff can kill you.’ We need to do that with drugs.”

When asked about the DARE drug education program that was discontinued, Carnright said, “The DARE program wasn’t successful. It wasn’t modern and up-to-date. If you go into an auditorium of juniors and seniors and tell them, ‘Don’t smoke pot, you might get addicted, your hair will fall out,’ the kids will be skeptical. When I go out and talk about heroin, kids listen when I tell them the stories. You never become un-addicted. They need to be told that in science class, in gym class, at the dining room table. People need to know the risk. And the people who are bringing heroin into the country — I’d like to line ‘em up and put ‘em away.”


County response

Although a 50 percent cut in funding from New York State prompted Ulster County to shift administration of mental health clinics to a privately operated agency, the county still has mental health resources available for families and adolescents, said county Health Commissioner Dr. Carol Smith. Hudson Valley Mental Health in Kingston employs most of the former county clinic staff and offers services — individual or group therapy, medication, medication management — for all ages on a sliding scale.

The Ulster Prevention Council specifically targets the problem of drug abuse, meeting regularly with behavioral health service providers to discuss drug-related issues and services. The Council also provides speakers for schools that request drug education. Smith has addressed meetings of school superintendents to let them know about the suicide prevention smartphone app developed by the county, as well as the mobile mental health crisis unit that’s been in operation for almost a year. The mobile unit, which brings trained personnel to the scene of a crisis in response to a phone call, is increasingly in use in the community.

“We’re doing our best to look for alternate funding streams,” said Smith. “We apply for grants and offer letters of support for programs,” such as the HealthAlliance of Hudson Valley’s methadone program, which is applying for state licensing to expand their capacity and reduce waiting lists.

The county is helping to train first responders in the use of Narcan kits, which reverse the effects of opioids in the case of an overdose, and to furnish trained units with the kits. Currently in development is an ombudsman position to advocate for individuals and families dealing with drug crises and help them navigate the health care system. Another innovation is a telepsychiatry model being developed between New York University’s psychiatry residence program and a clinic in Saugerties run by Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center.