Officials press for stiffer penalties
WATKINS GLEN -- If you sell heroin laced with a synthetic enhancement such as fentanyl and death or serious injury results, you could face life in prison -- even the death penalty -- if convicted.
That would happen if legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Tom Reed (R-Corning) is enacted.
"I understand that the death penalty is a controversial stance. But I will tell you, when someone engages in this reckless behavior and does it to profit by killing our kids, we need to be sure that law enforcement has every tool available to them to go after the worst of the worst and ensure that justice is done," Reed said during a news conference Oct. 14 on the steps of the Schuyler County Courthouse.
"Killing our kids is unacceptable, and you will face dire consequences if you engage in that here in our communities," he said.
H.R. 6158, the Help Ensure Lives are Protected Act of 2016, was introduced in September in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was referred Oct. 11 to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations.
Surrounded by a variety of law enforcement officials from throughout the region, Reed said he has heard about the impact of heroin and opioid abuse on families and communities at town hall meetings across the 23rd Congressional District.
"This epidemic is real, it is serious and it is a crisis," he said.
Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike said fentanyl is a very dangerous synthetic, and the epidemic he identified two years ago still continues.
"I've had way too many mothers of young children come up and hug me and cry, 'Help me, help me, what can I do? Our child has turned into an addict.' It's very difficult," he said.
Spike said his department's investigators and officers are spending a lot of time dealing with this issue because it results in a lot of other crime.
"They want me to start a program in our county where an addict could come into our office and turn themselves in and turn in their paraphernalia, and I would get them help. I said I'm glad to do that. I would be ready to do that," he said. "But who do I hand them off to? Where is that bed? I can't travel to Albany or New York City or Rochester to find that bed. So, treatment is a challenge."
This problem and plague is so much more than a law enforcement problem, Yates County District Attorney Valerie Gardner said.
"We all recognize that, but like any problem, like any critical health crisis that our communities face, we need to employ multiple strategies in order to be able to address this problem and stem the tide of the impacts that are coming at us so swiftly with the opioid epidemic," she said.
Gardner cited a coalition in Yates County that is working to address the prevention aspect of addiction. "I would encourage everyone to please get involved because this does impact all of us on so many levels," she said.
The crisis is reaching out beyond Schuyler County, Sheriff Bill Yessman said, pointing out that a Schuyler County resident had been apprehended overnight in New Jersey with a quantity of heroin that was intended to be sold in the county.
"This legislation, with its increased penalties for dealers that are lacing heroin with fentanyl, will be a help, but we also need more treatment beds. That's the key," he said. "Treatment beds for our addicts is a big problem across the country, especially in New York. If these people have to wait for a bed to get into treatment, they're going to continue to use."
One organization out of Rochester said it had a 100-person waiting list to get a bed in their treatment facility, Yessman said, adding: "That's unacceptable."
The issues associated with the ravages of addiction must be attacked, said Schuyler County Chief Assistant District Attorney Matthew Hayden. "But more important is the fact that we need to take care of these drug dealers that our poisoning our communities, who are out there destroying families, destroying lives, and also contributing to the inherent consequence of property crime associated with this problem," he said.
Reed said the effort is going to involve a multi-prong approach. "We need to make sure that we recognize that people in addiction are not what we're targeting here, not what we're trying to address," he said. "What we're trying to address are the people that are dealing this and killing our kids in our community."
Assemblyman Phil Palmesano (R-Corning) agreed. "We can't arrest our way out of this problem," he said. "It has to be a comprehensive approach by getting the community members involved."
The upstate region is being targeted, said Assemblyman Chris Friend (R-Big Flats). "We used to represent 20 percent of the heroin problem within New York state. We're now above 40 percent," he said. "That's a dramatic shift from New York City and Long Island."
State Sen. Tom O'Mara (R-Big Flats) has been involved in the Senate's bipartisan Heroin and Opioid Addiction Task Force, said Sharon Moore, who represented O'Mara at the news conference. The result has been new laws that target prevention, treatment, recovery and education, she said, noting there is $200 million in the state budget to support that, an 82 percent increase since 2011.