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State lawmakers target growing use of opiates

Robert Ortt

State lawmakers are stepping up efforts to curb a heroin epidemic after the CDC released a study showing a drastic rise in use and deaths related to the drug.

According to the study, the number of Americans using heroin within a 12-month period has drastically increased to over 663,000.  That’s up from 370,000 11 years ago.  The Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction is asking the Assembly to join efforts to deal with the epidemic.  Senator Robert Ortt, co-chair of the task force, tells WBFO aggressively targeting dealers will play a key role in the process.

“If you could trace back where you bought the drug from to this dealer and somebody died, the dealer could actually be charged as an accomplice to a homicide, and I think that was an important piece of legislation,” said Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican.

The report shows that heroin usage is rapidly increasing in the country. Meanwhile, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013.  Usage is increasing among men and women, most age groups and all income levels.  Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican, says heroin users often don’t know what they’re getting.

“They’re cutting up the heroin and lacing it with fentanyl. Fentanyl is very lethal, especially in the wrong dose, as any medical professional would tell you. They know what they’re doing, they know that fentanyl is bad. Many of the people buying it don’t know what they’re actually getting and that’s why you’re also seeing a lot of deaths,” Ortt said. 

Earlier this year, the State Senate passed a package of bills in hopes of putting a big dent in the epidemic.  In addition to targeting dealers, the plan would include increasing efforts for education, prevention and treatment.  The new efforts include an additional $7.8 million allocated to programs such as treatment and recovery services.

Senator Terrence Murphy, also a co-chair of the task force, said the CDC report confirms what legislatures have heard from users, police officers and parents.

“For many people, the results of the CDC study on heroin use in the United States was staggering, but the unfortunate reality is that it only echoed what we have heard at our task force hearings,” Murphy said in a written statement.  “I join my fellow co-chairs in urging our counterparts in the Assembly to pass the legislative package we crafted.

The task force has held four forums throughout the state this year with plans to hold more. Ortt says identifying users often comes as a surprise to friends and family. 

“There was no one that I’ve spoken to that lost a child or loved one or brother that would tell you they thought that would be what would happen to their loved one. It all came as a surprise…there was a young man who dislocated his shoulder playing football and he got addicted to pain medication during that rehabilitation experience that ultimately lead to heroin and that ultimately lead to his death,” Ortt said.

On Monday’s “Morning Edition” program, WBFO will begin four-part weekly series on the opiate epidemic.

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