PEARL RIVER, N.Y. -- "Your families would rather visit you in state prison than arrange for your funeral," said Judge Charles Apotheker, speaking to a large audience that packed the Pearl River Hilton to listen to a panel on drug addition Wednesday evening. The Judge, who presides over the Rockland County Misdemeanor Drug Court Program, did not mince his words.
"Yes, it's a difficult 18-month program, but at the end of the line, you have a life."
Apotheker, along with a recovered drug addict, the mother of a heroin user, and others from the law enforcement community, participated in a panel sponsored by High Focus Centers of Paramus, N.J. on drug addition, and the heroin epidemic that is plaguing our nation.
There were 35 drug overdoses in 2015 in Rockland County, according to Tina Guccione, the county's supervising assistant district attorney. That's ten more than the previous year, she said. The death toll could have been higher but for an additional 36 calls in which EMTs administered Narcan in time.
"Addiction is a disease," said Guccione. "It is no longer a hidden issue. It is a treatable disease."
A recent National Survey on drug use and health reports that heroin use in the U.S. has nearly doubled the the last decade. Some 156,000 Americans age 12 or older say they first tried heroin in 2012.
The profile of heroin users has shifted from being a ghetto drug to one that cuts across all ages, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. It's as prevalent in cities as well as suburbs and rural areas. Police in Clarkstown report a spike in drug arrests, from 59 to 91, from 2010 to 2014.
Many say the path to heroin begins with painkillers. Nearly half of young people who inject heroin surveyed in recent studies report abusing prescription opioids before using heroin. Many switch to heroin when they can no longer get or steal prescription drugs, or simply because heroin is cheaper. A heroin high now costs less than a decent bottle of wine.
"Steve", a 28-year-old recovered drug addict, and one of the panel's speakers, told a riveted crowd his story. It began in middle school in Suffern, when he was a good student and a promising athlete. Hanging with the "cool" kids led him to experiment with alcohol and pot. Then he stepped it up to prescription pain medicine, not only using but selling. For nearly a decade, Steve's life was a series of arrests, juvenile detentions, short-term recoveries, and relapses. His brother's wedding was the turning point. Days before, the police raided his house. He was there with his grandmother. Finally he realized how far gone he was, and how much shame he'd brought upon his family. With their help, and with the aid of persuasive lawyers who kept him out of prison, he got clean. He said the key was not a 28-day rehab program, but being enrolled in a one-year after-care program at Turning Point, which meant support was ongoing.
"Drugs are powerful," he said. "You can't use for years and then beat it in 28 days." Sober since 2012, Steven is in his third year of John Jay College, and is interested in a career in the criminal justice system.