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The Community Forum Recently Hosted by H.O.P.E. in Phoenix, Oswego County Shed Light on the Heroin Abuse Epidemic in Upstate New York

According to a recent study that used a mixed-methods approach, combining retrospective data on heroin use patterns from the nationwide SKIP program and RAPID data from qualitative, unstructured interviews with a subset of patients, the demographic composition of heroin users has shifted over the last five decades. More specifically, heroin use and abuse have moved well past their urban roots, migrating from low-urban urban areas with large minority groups to rural and suburban areas with predominantly white populations. Therefore, a minority-centered, inner-city problem in the 1960s and 70s, the abuse of heroin has today a far more widespread geographical distribution and involves primarily women and men in their late 20s and early 30s.

Earlier this month, amid the heroin abuse epidemic hitting an entire nation, the small rural community of Phoenix, Oswego County in Upstate New York became the epicenter of the county’s ongoing efforts to address this devastating problem. The alarming increase in heroin use and migration to much younger, white users appears to be linked to the coincidental increase in the abuse of prescription opiate painkillers over the last 20 years as well as the increased heroin availability in Upstate New York. Growing evidence suggests that opioid users shift to heroin at least partly because it has become far less expensive and more accessible than prescription opiates.

Heroin. Opioid. Prevention. Education. (H.O.P.E.), a group founded in mid-March by a committee of Phoenix residents committed to change the face of opioid addiction, hosted a community forum on heroin at J.C. Birdlebough High School in the village of Phoenix. Eagerly and open-heartedly embraced by dozens of attendees, the community forum's triumphant message of hope was reinforced by H.O.P.E. founder Savannah Jaquay who pleaded with the public to "hold onto hope".

In January this year, Tom Pokalsky, Jaquay's best friend succumbed to this ubiquitous, terrible disease that the canal community continues to grapple with. Emphasizing that Tom's legacy is "of hope", Savannah Jaquay tearfully remembered him as a person, not a heroin addict and honored his life cut short by a heroin overdose. She also said that heroin has no prejudice and addiction to this illicit drug can happen to anyone. Deanna Axe, who also spoke at the event added that heroin has no mercy as she recalled the premature death of her pregnant 24-year old daughter Morgan who used one fatal dose of heroin after months of sobriety.

The event, which started with an agency expo was graced by the presence of special guest speakers and a diverse panel of heroin abuse experts that included treatment providers, medical professionals, caseworkers, recovering addicts, the pharmaceutical industry and law enforcement representatives, district attorneys, loved ones and families of deceased heroin addicts as well as a former drug dealer, who was also the moderator. The specialists answered questions from the public, shared personal experiences and brought valuable knowledge to the community members in the auditorium, especially in terms of heroin addiction prevention, education and treatment options, which are paramount in the fight against this lethal epidemic.

The agency expo featured more than 15 substance abuse treatment agencies in Oswego and surrounding counties that showcased the specialized services they offer, as well as several support groups (i.e. Professional Counseling Services, Prevention Network, VOW Foundation) for heroin addicts or those who have a loved one struggling with this devastating disease.

The medical community was represented by Dr. Jeanna Marraffa, Upstate Poison Center's Clinical Director, who shed light on the risk factors and warning signs of heroin addiction, as well as Dr. Bill Hines, Professional Counseling Services' Medical Director who provided information on the physiological effects of heroin on the human brain.

Brian, Matthew, and Natasha shared their own stories from heroin addiction to recovery, reiterating the message that hope shines brightly for everyone struggling in the darkness. The impact that heroin abuse has on the families and loved ones of heroin users was addressed by several speakers at the community forum. Lindsay Lavigne from Oswego County DSS stated that 44% of all open cases at the county's Department of Social Services are substance abuse related. She also discussed the insufficient insurance coverage for full inpatient treatment, that acts as an impediment to heroin addicts seeking help.

Stressing that addiction is both a public health and public safety concern, Oswego County District Attorney and coroner Greg Oakes said that incarceration cannot stop drug addiction and that the drug treatment program offered through the DA's office to those arrested for a drug-related felony has proven to be a far more successful tool to stop future drug use. Oakes also shed light on the "Good Samaritan law" that offers protection from prosecution to anyone seeking medical treatment for themselves or a loved one.

Narcotics detective Shane LaVigne and Phoenix Police Chief Marty Nerber talked about their recent arrest of a drug dealer who tried to bring 4 ounces of heroin (sufficient for 3,500 individual doses) into the village of Pheonix. Pheonix police officers recently found a packet of heroin on a basketball court at a local school; Chief Nerber declared that younger and younger individuals, some still in their teens, start shooting heroin.

Devin Nelepovitz, the moderator for the event, was introduced to drugs at an early age and used to live in fear of prosecution as he spent many years selling drugs in the community to help support his own habit. Highlighting that a " community not noticing" is what makes a person like himself, Nelepovitz urged the audience to take away just one message - "the power of NO".

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