Surge in county heroin use spurs local action

The danger of heroin, a highly addictive drug responsible for destroying lives, has hit home in Red Hook.

The apparent overdose death of a 21-year-old Red Hook man prompted County Legislator Micki Strawinski to convene a hasty community forum in the village Jan. 30, while two special sessions for parents are on tap in March planned by Red Hook school officials.

Meanwhile, unofficial reports by police now connect heroin use to some of the recent burglaries in the Red Hook area.

Heroin overdose deaths in Kingston and Poughkeepsie have also stirred county and state authorities into action to fight the growing use of heroin in the state. And last week’s apparent overdose death of Academy-award winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in New York City has pushed heroin’s lethal profile even higher.

No one disputes that heroin use has exploded in Dutchess County in the last two years.

On Jan. 27, Sen. Charles Schumer called on the federal government to designate the county a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. He also wants to establish a statewide database of drug-related crimes, saying the “rise in heroin use (in Dutchess County) is beyond alarming.”

On Jan. 31, Ulster law officials, citing neighboring jurisdictions, issued a warning on a tainted drug combination of heroin and fentanyl, a powerful opioid painkiller, which they said caused 68 overdoses in Poughkeepsie at the end of last year.

No area, it seems, is untouched.

According to police sources, the recent rash of Red Hook burglaries might have some connection to the drug. They said some of the daylight thefts in homes — where jewelry, cash and small items that can be pawned were taken — could be linked to heroin use. But because the investigations are still continuing, they said, the connection has not been verified.

A Dec. 26 burglary at the Cornucopia Deli in Upper Red Hook, on the other hand, appears to have a stronger connection to drug use, the police sources said. One of the two Long Island men charged with the break-in reportedly told police that withdrawal symptoms was one of the reasons for the crime.

Strawinski’s community forum at the Elmendorph Inn on Jan. 30 was triggered by the local death the week before.

Eleven parents, educators and representatives of the Red Hook police department and the county Sheriff’s Office attended the gathering to discuss how to deal with this mounting problem.

Strawinski opened the forum by saying she wanted the community to understand that their leaders are making an effort to let people know what’s going on, to curtail some of the drug use and to keep the kids “positively engaged.”

She said there is a lot for young people to do in Red Hook, but she is worried about those who get themselves into trouble.

Referring to the apparent overdose victim, she said, “Even if it’s a small group, like what happened with this latest tragedy, it has had a far-reaching effect on this community.”

Then she added that she didn’t know the family or the young man who died but “I was really very emotional over this one.”

Strawinski explained that her short-term goal was to raise awareness of the issue and her long-term goal was to discover ways of helping parents and young people with alternative activities and assistance with addiction.

“In the time I’ve lived in Red Hook, there have been a dozen young people that have died either from drinking and driving or drug deaths,” she said. “And we just can’t remain silent about the problems that are occurring in this small town.”

Village Mayor Ed Blundell was there and praised the interaction of the police department and the Red Hook school district in trying to raise awareness of the drug issue. He said he hoped that Strawinski, as a legislator, could find ways for the county to help.

Red Hook Police Sergeant Patrick Hildenbrand, joined by Red Hook detective Tom D’Amicantonio and Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office deputies Mark Catooza and Tyler Wyman, presented the law enforcement perspective.

Much of the heroin use appears to begin with the abuse of prescription pain medication, D’Amicantonio said, and when that is no longer available, heroin becomes the next step.

“My experience has been none of these people…ever thought they would do heroin,” he added.” Every person I’ve spoken to…started with prescription medications…”

He also noted that the state’s new prescription monitoring program (PMP) has cut way down on the over-prescribing of pain medications.

“It’s harder for these guys to get prescription meds and they turn to heroin, and since they’ve never done this before, there’s overdose,” he explained.

Hildenbrand said that the problem isn’t in the schools. “There’s some marijuana, but heroin is not in the schools,” he said, adding that its use belongs to a larger demographic outside school.

“We’re dealing with anything from 17 to 18 year olds to people in their 70’s and 80’s,” he added, explaining that a lot of kids in the community get sucked in to the drug by outsiders who have moved into the area.

And he noted, with the proximity of Poughkeepsie, Kingston and New York City, drugs are never far away.

D‘Amicantonio said that some of the heroin currently circulating in the area may be mixed with the narcotic fentanyl.

“I’ve spoken to different people … and there are problems with the heroin now. There was, and there might still be, tainted heroin treated with fentanyl,” he warned.

Wyman confirmed this. He noted that some heroin tested by the county crime lab was almost 100 percent fentanyl, and added that fentanyl is at least 50 times stronger than morphine, so the results can be devastating for new users and even for habitual users.

Widespread media reports show that fentanyl-laced heroin has been responsible for more than 100 overdose deaths from Maryland to New Hampshire in the past few weeks.

Wyman also said that dealers regularly adulterate, or cut, their product with harmless additives to double their profit, so if a user is regularly injecting a “cut” form of heroin and buys the same amount of the purer drug from another source, it can be fatal.

Also addressing the forum was a man who had come back from the dark side of addiction.

, a recovered alcoholic and drug addict from the area, spoke passionately about his recovery and how community and after-school programs helped him through it.

, however, said he had never used heroin, only cocaine, pills and alcohol.

“Why would I do a drug that would make me throw up, except alcohol,” he said in one of the few moments that brought smiles to the listeners.

was well-versed in community efforts to fight back.

“We’ve tried this in Red Hook a couple of times,” he said, referring to what he considered the best program from 10 years ago called the Action Community Education task force. It brought together the schools, law enforcement and employers to promote after-school activities and jobs for those between 16 and 25 years old. “But we can’t expect this to work completely … the drugs are here and here to stay.”

said the biggest problem with these programs is sustainability; people drop out, they lose their funding because of budget cuts, and 10 years later the community is back to square one. He added that having a mentor other than a parent helped his recovery.

“It takes everyone working together,” he said.

Betty Hannan, co-president of the Red Hook Parent Teacher Student Association, said the organization will be holding a special presentation by the county’s Council on Addiction Prevention and Education (CAPE) on March 4 at the high school cafeteria at 7pm.

It was needed, she said, “because a lot of parents are in denial that there are drugs.”

She added, “I think a big part of it is educating the parents … no one wants to say it happens to their kid.”

Diane Dalton, treasurer of the Red Hook Sports Club, agreed with that assessment.

“We need more awareness about the drugs,” she said. “The parents I know of are just blind and won’t admit there’s a problem here in Red Hook.”

Blundell announced at the forum that the Red Hook school district would be sponsoring a March 8 program called Parent University that will focus not only on the drug problem, but also on other problems, like cyberbullying, that parents have to deal with.

Through seminars, with police sessions and participation by CAPE, the school district hopes to increase parental involvement and participation in schools, allow parents to network with professionals and other parents, and help them to develop their parenting skills.

The program will run from 8am to 12:30pm at the high school.

This story was updated to reflect the correct spelling of Mr. Laugier’s last name.

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