The Heroin Scourge

Here’s a statistic some New Yorkers of a certain age will be shocked to read: Heroin deaths increased by 84 percent in two years, from 2010 to 2012.

Heroin. For a generation of New Yorkers, the drug is associated with the very bad old days of the 1970s, the days of barren budgets, high crime and open air drug markets in public spaces. The drug seemed to lose favor, thankfully, but it has returned with a particular vengeance. The great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was simply the best known victim of this new scourge. Far too many deaths preceded his in recent years, and far too many will follow.

In an effort to combat this new heroin epidemic, the Police Department has embarked on a new pilot program on Staten Island. Officers in the borough’s four precincts will be trained in the use of a medication that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. 

The program certainly will save lives. Some emergency medical personnel have had access to the drug, Naloxone, for decades, but police often are first on the scene of a heroin overdose. So now they, too, will be able to administer this potentially life-saving treatment. 

Staten Island was selected for the program in part because the city’s least populated and most suburban borough has the city’s highest rate of heroin overdoses. A federal grant will help pay for the first 1,000 doses of Naloxone.

In the mean time, Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano announced that emergency personnel under his command, including firefighters assigned to engine companies, also will carry doses of Naloxone and will be trained in administering the drug. (In one of the Giuliani administration’s signature reforms, engine company personnel were given new responsibilities as first responders for medical emergencies.)

All of this adds up to a common-sense response to a problem that, sadly, appears to have made a lamentable resurgence in far too many New York neighborhoods. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton noted that Mexican drug cartels are making an aggressive effort to hook a new generation of New Yorkers on heroin. Users, he said, “are going back to the traditional buying in the street, with all the inherent dangers there.”

Those dangers are clear and present not only for the users themselves, but for the city in general. Illicit drug use can devastate entire communities, as anyone who lived through the 1970s in New York will testify.

Arming first responders with Naloxone undoubtedly will save many lives. But the need for this medication clearly is a warning sign. This is not just a medical issue. It is a law enforcement issue, and it’s a societal issue as well.

Giving cops the tools to save lives is a good idea.

But the real goal ought to be figuring out how to make those tools an anachronism.