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Increase in heroin use leads to debate over treatment versus punishment

(AP Photo/Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York)

(AP Photo/Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York)

HOST INTRO: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s recent death from a heroin overdose made him part of a growing statistic. The number of heroin-related deaths in the city rose a staggering 84 percent between 2010 and 2012. Accidental drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in New York. Now, state lawmakers are taking action. Four new pieces of legislation take very different approaches. Chris Mathias reports.

Elizabeth Owens, a recovering heroin user, doesn’t like it when people ask her how long she’s been “clean.”

OWENS: I was never dirty. I don’t sit up in the attic and collect dust and be weather-beaten, I’m a human being. (0:05)

The first time she used heroin, Owens was only thirteen years old, a young girl in Brooklyn’s Farragut housing projects. She was fifty when she quit.

OWENS: I stopped using now for about four or five years. (0:03)

She now works at Vocal New York, a group that provides services to drug users.  The job has given Owens a front row seat to the resurgence of heroin in New York. Many users she sees started taking prescription drugs– like oxycontin– then move onto heroin, when pills got too hard to get and too expensive.

OWENS: If you go get a prescription, a 30-day prescription, that’s 160 dollars if you don’t have medical coverage. So they goin “Yea, let me go ahead and get a bag of heroin, that’s only 10 dollars, and it lasts longer.” (0:08)

Karen Carlini works at a youth rehab center in Brooklyn. Last year, she says, nearly 70 percent of patients said heroin was their primary drug of choice, a huge jump from the year before.

CARLINI: Many of them will talk about how they smoked weed in high school, but how the first time they took a pill, how quickly they became addicted, and how quickly it spun it out of control, is unprecedented. (0:13)

This pill and heroin epidemic, Carlini says, is devastating some communities.

CARLINI: We have a kid yesterday, his father stood up in the meeting and said my son lost 10 friends. His son is 21. 10 of his friends died. Another parent, who had 8 kids in her neighborhood, Dyker Heights, Brooklyn.  (0:15)

When it comes to legislation to tackle New York’s growing heroin crisis, there are two different approaches: Make harsher punishments for heroin users, or increase their access to treatment programs.

State Senator Marty Golden is a Republican who represents South Brooklyn. He favors tougher drug laws. Yesterday he voted for a bill that makes harsher sentences for drug dealers who sell to children. And Golden also thinks heroin possession laws in general need to be tighter.

GOLDEN: Somebody’s allowed to walk around with a hundred packs of heroin and not be arrested for a felony. There’s something wrong with the penal code in that town, city, or state.  (0:12)

And so, on a state level, Golden want wants to make possession of 50 decks, or 300 dollars worth of heroin, a felony, punishable by at least one to 9 years in prison.

For Matt Curtis, the director at Vocal New York, this is the wrong approach.

CURTIS: Increasing the criminal penalties is exactly the opposite of what we need to be doing right now.  There’s no reason, rationally, that anybody should be spending time in jail for something that’s a health condition. (0:10)

And that’s why Curtis and Vocal New York helped introduce legislation that would make a lifesaving drug more widely available. Naloxone, also known as narcan, immediately reverses the effects of a heroin or prescription pill overdose.  Elizabeth Owens, the former heroin addict,  has personal experience with the wonder drug. One night an ex-girlfriend called her up and said she’d taken too many pills.

 OWENS: And so I had to run to her house, and when I couldn’t get in the door, I had to climb up the fire escape. And when I got in there, she was trying to kill herself with oxycontin, and the narcan kit saved her life. (0:13)

A pilot program on Staten Island has NYPD officers carrying narcan kits.

Another bill, which Sen. Golden also supports, would increase access to treatment for heroin users. The bill calls for 15 million dollars to be allocated to community detox programs, school-based prevention education, and increased access to health insurance for users.

But at the end of the day, legislation can only do so much. For Owens, what’s important is that users know they’re not alone.

OWENS: People need to feel belonged and loved. And people need to know that just because what you do that doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a human being. You are somebody. (0:10)

Heroin isn’t only a growing problem in New York. A 2012 survey found nearly half a million Americans were heroin-dependent, more than double the number from 10 years before.

Chris Mathias, Columbia Radio News.

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