The word heroin has become commonplace in the last several years and unfortunately, its use continues to rise here in Westchester County, as well as around the country.

Nearly a decade ago, the focus of law enforcement and substance abuse providers turned to prescription drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone. The abuse of these types of drugs and the subsequent prosecution of those who used and sold them created a very different problem – heroin addiction. This resulted because abusers of prescription drugs quickly realized that heroin was easier to get and cheaper to buy on the street than prescription painkillers.

What users did not realize was that the quality and purity of illegally produced and sold heroin could vary considerably, with one bag of powder containing 16% pure heroin while the next bag could contain 60% pure heroin. Additionally, heroin bought on the street may also be mixed with other dangerous drugs, such as fentanyl, a synthetic drug that can often be 30 to 50 times more potent than pure heroin.

This has led leading law enforcement agencies and health officials to label the recent rise in heroin use an “epidemic.” Indeed, the numbers are staggering:

  • A report released by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows heroin use has more than doubled since 2007.
  • More than 500,000 people have reported using heroin in the past 12 months, a 150 percent increase in just six years.
  • The CDC reports that heroin-related deaths nearly tripled between 2010 and 2013.
  • Felony prosecutions of offense involving heroin have increased 250 percent in Westchester County since 2011.

In an effort to combat this deadly drug and its devastating effect on our local communities, the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office (WCDAO) has created the Overdose Response Initiative (ORI). In collaboration with local police departments, the United States Attorney’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Westchester Intelligence Center, and the Westchester County Medical Examiner, each overdose death is treated as a crime scene and certain data is immediately reported to an Assistant District Attorney in our Narcotics Bureau.

One of the most effective results of this new initiative is our ability to identify a potentially new, lethal “brand” of heroin and to distribute that information to all area law enforcement agencies, fire departments and EMS departments. This allows for better medical response to overdose victims, as well as aiding in identifying the source of these newly created “brands” and prosecuting these suppliers to the fullest extent of the law.

Finally, two recent developments in New York State have sought to address other issues surrounding the heroin epidemic. The first was the passage of the “911 Good Samaritan” law (Penal Law §220.78). This law allows people to seek immediate health care for someone who is overdosing without the fear that they will be charged and prosecuted for drug and alcohol possessory crimes.

The other initiative is a recent focus on training law enforcement officers in the use of naloxone, commonly referred to as Narcan. Narcan is a medicine that, when given to a heroin or other opioid overdose victim, reverses the effects of the lethal drug. Training and equipping police officers on the use of Narcan is a practical strategy that is helping to reduce heroin fatalities.

Heroin addiction has affected every segment of our population – it does not discriminate on the basis of age, economic status or race. To that end, the WCDAO is committed to educating the public about the dangers of this now too-familiar drug and to continue to prosecute those who commit heroin-related offenses in our ongoing effort to keep our communities safe.