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New York’s drug epidemic hits home for local leaders

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WBFO News File Photo/Eileen Buckley
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During a recent meeting in Amherst, many in attendance seemed startled by the death toll in their town from overdoses of heroin and prescription drugs. Western New York’s state legislators are saying Albany has to deal with the scourge of drugs.

For a long time, many in the suburbs associated heroin and other hard drugs with cities and urban areas. State Senator Patrick Gallivan said it's just not true. There is a problem across his district, from wealthy suburbs to rural farm areas.

Gallivan traces some of the issue to an attempt to deal with the problem of misused prescription drugs called the “I-Stop” program.

“The unintended consequence is now that there's not as many prescription drugs available on the streets, due to the I-Stop Legislation, it has driven people to heroin,” explained Gallivan. “Now, heroin is cheaper than ever. There's more of it than ever. It's deadly when they're mixing it with fentanyl and other things. We really do have an epidemic.”

Gallivan is familiar with drug problems because of his years as a State Trooper and Erie County Sheriff.

Assemblyman David DiPietro represents a district based in East Aurora, which is fairly affluent, with good schools. DiPietro said heroin isn't just a problem for police and school district administrators to talk about. It's a problem for parents and, for families, it can hit close to home.

“I have a nephew who – a bunch of years ago – was addicted and got off it. But I have another nephew right now who can't and we worry he's not going to be around here very shortly. It's a horrible thing,” said DiPietro. “It breaks up families. It causes so much heartache and it's got to stop. We've got to find a way to combat it.”

People who deal with drugs or have families with problem members have said the extent of the addiction picture is obscured because of code words and practices. They mention deaths of teens reported “dying unexpectedly” or without a cause being mentioned. Those instances are suspected of being cases when a family doesn't want to explain why ‘nice kids’ with good grades who come from a good family overdosed on drugs.

In the first ten-months of last 2015, there were 188 fatal heroin overdoses across Erie County. Those at the Amherst meeting were told there isn't enough treatment available locally or across the state.

Legislators agree that is where Albany's fiscal resources can help. State Senator Mike Ranzenhofer sits on a state-wide Heroin and Opioids Task Force.

“A lot of people think that this is just a problem in the city, but we heard from people from Amherst to Batavia – middle class, hard-working families that have their lives torn open and torn apart by a loved one that couldn't get the help they needed, became addicted. It's just a terrible tragedy for a community and we have to stay focused on that issue,” said Ranzenhofer.

Assemblyman Ray Walter represents Amherst and another part of the state's mosaic – its parents.

“I have a 14-year-old son,” said Walter. “It scares me to death to think this is something that's affecting him and people in his school, in high school, in a community where you wouldn't normally think that that would happen. But it is happening and we need to shine a light on it and fix it.”

State legislators say, this year, there has to be an effort to push back hard against heroin and opioids and provide the long-term help many need to break the habit.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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