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Heroin takes root in Chautauqua County

December 5, 2013
By A.J. Rao - , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first part of a series looking at the heroin problem in Chautauqua County.

Here's the dilemma.

In a county of approximately 134,000 people, heroin - the deadly and highly addictive street opiate-has taken root.

According to Chautauqua County law enforcement officials, demand for heroin has not only skyrocketed, but compelled drug dealers from neighboring cities to migrate into the area like an uncontrollable virus.

"It's everywhere," said Captain Robert F. Samuelson, division commander of the Jamestown Police Department. "Heroin has exploded to almost epidemic proportions ... and crosses nearly (every demographic)."

Recent statistics show the number of heroin-related arrests by the Jamestown Police Department jumping from nine in 2011 to 27 in 2013.

Drug-related incarcerations, many of which involve heroin, are also increasing, with the Chautauqua County Jail in Mayville nearly reaching its peak capacity of inmates.

More alarmingly, heroin has been linked to more deaths in 2013 than any other drug, according to Jamestown's Mental Health Association, the only peer-run mental health service in New York state.

The question is: why? And more importantly, what is the county doing to fix the problem?

Heroin, sometimes referred to as smack, skag or tar, is an analgesic drug derived primarily from morphine.

While it can be smoked, it is typically injected via syringe or snorted, tapping into the brain's pleasure receptors and causing a rapid "high."

After being somewhat overshadowed by crack cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s, the drug has rebounded significantly in the past decade, with many finding solace in its ability to "numb" chronic pain and emotional trauma.

"There's an interesting theory that ties (heroin) to the use of prescription drugs which are also opiates,"said Harry Snellings, chief of police at Jamestown Police Department. "As people (become addicted to) prescription drugs and find it difficult to purchase them ... the natural transition is heroin."

Drugs like Oxycontin, Vicodin and Demerol are some of heroin's most prevalent predecessors, causing debilitating withdrawal symptoms when taken away, and forcing addicts to stop at nothing to get the cheaper, and often more potent, heroin fix.

"It's a vicious cycle," Samuelson said. "People need money to get drugs ... so they commit crimes ... burglaries, larcenies and the next day it repeats itself. I would say 90 percent of crimes are drug-related ... they are the nexus to most of our problems."

According to the latest results of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the county is apparently not alone, with the number of people nationwide dependent on heroin being approximately 467,000 in 2012, nearly double what it was a decade earlier.

While the drug still lags behind marijuana and cocaine in abuse, the crackdown on prescription drugs, in particular, is quickly increasing the demand for it, and creating a larger, more systemic movement of heroin into small-town America.

"Because of high demand (and less competition), a drug dealer can move into a small community and get more for their product per unit," said Joseph Gerace, Chautauqua County sheriff. "The threat level is also lower ... the possibility of drug-related, gang violence is much smaller in a community like ours."

Gerace also pointed to the county's proximity to Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, the Pennsylvania border, the New York State Thruway and the Southern Tier Expressway as a contributing factor.

"We have all these connections which make it easier for our day-to-day travelers, but also make it easier for drug dealers too," Gerace said.

For law enforcement, the response to heroin-and the drug problem writ large-has mostly been one of vigilance, investigation and strategic action in the midst of tightening budget constraints.

"We have a lot more information coming in than we have resources to investigate," said Gerace, who indicated that an increase in manpower could potentially double the number of drug arrests in Chautauqua County. "But we probably have our ear to the ground more because of the size of the county (population-wise) ... we identify an outsider more rapidly than a big city would."

One of the more notable seizures-considered the largest heroin sting in the county by Gerace- occurred in March 2011, when the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office along with its drug enforcement arm, the Southern Tier Regional Drug Task Force, busted the Angueira heroin distribution ring in Jamestown-a culmination of a year-and-a-half-long investigation.

While incarcerations for drug-related crimes are up, insufficient treatment for addicts is leading to countless repeat offenders and overcrowded jails. The Chautauqua County Jail, for example, typically houses federal inmates, which generates substantial revenue for the county and eases the financial burden on taxpayers. With drug-related incarcerations taking up an increasing amount of space, the jail can no longer do this.

"We're working (toward) alternatives to incarcerations ... more avenues for judges to do constructive sentencing alternatives," Gerace said. "This is a supply and demand business. In a perfect world, we reduce dramatically the demand, and the supply end takes care of itself. That's a pretty hefty goal, but that doesn't mean we should back off of it."



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