Story by Arthur Gonick, Saratoga Today NewspaperSARATOGA SPRINGS— We tend to wax romantic about our community. And in truth, compared to other communities, we are relatively safe. As such, we sometimes fall into an illusion that we are insulated from the worst of society’s ills.

But at street level, there’s no such illusion. This is the reality Sergeant Tim Sicko and the Saratoga Springs Police Investigation Division sees:

“Just in the last four to five months, we’ve seen over a half-dozen overdoses from heroin.” He said. Moreover, “the number of heroin buys my (undercover) officers make have risen significantly over the past two and one-half years I’ve been in charge of the division.” The Investigation Division oversees both the drug and criminal units.

When asked to estimate the percentage, Sergeant Sicko commented. “Undercover buys of heroin were maybe 2 out of 100 just a couple of years ago, when we saw mostly crack cocaine and pills on the street. Today, I would estimate it’s closer to 50 percent.” He said.

The Prevention Council of Saratoga confirms that a significant uptick in heroin usage in this community has occurred, as part of a nationwide trend. Executive Director Janine Stuchin noted:

“No one starts off on heroin. National and local studies have shown that the recent upsurge in heroin use is directly connected with prescription pain killer (opiate) abuse.”

The purpose of this article is not to sensationalize or unduly alarm, but to educate and advocate that if your head is in the sand about heroin in Saratoga County and you are thinking “it can’t happen here,” take a look around.

“It” already is happening.

And while no one will purport that Saratoga County has as bad a problem as some of the larger and more urban cities, to deny the insidious presence of this most insidious of drugs would be irresponsible.

Both Ms. Stuchin and Sgt. Sicko cite the relative inexpensiveness of heroin as a factor in its recent rise in usage. “Heroin is less expensive than illicit prescription pain killers such as oxycodone, explaining the trend toward increased heroin use.” Ms. Stuchin noted. Sgt. Sicko also noted the “difficult, painful withdrawal process” that is involved from heroin once addicted that will naturally keep people looking for their next fix.

Compounding this is the phenomenon of the “chase after the initial high,” as Sgt. Sicko put it, which would lead a user who might have started snorting heroin to graduate to a needle for a greater effect.

Finally, you have the factor that, according to any study, the profile of the heroin user is younger than ever. “One of the recent overdoses we had was someone in their 20s,” Sgt. Sicko noted, “fortunately, he was not a fatality.”

For the user, Sgt. Sicko noted that a factor compounding the danger of heroin are the other substances that are lacing it; substances which can be even more lethal than the heroin itself. “You don’t know what you are accepting or where it came from.” Sgt. Sicko noted. “In contrast, you can look at a given pill and if you are savvy, recognize the manufacturer – although this is not foolproof.”

Heroin dealers attempt to mitigate this by engaging in a “branding” exercise: Labeling their nickel or dime bags with a logo or markings that would tend to inspire a false sense of confidence – I’ve bought this before, it’s OK – yet, Sergeant Sicko rightly points out that the street dealer has little knowledge of where today’s batch came from, if they were inclined to care in the first place.

He spread an array of evidence bags before us and my eyes kept going to one dealer’s mark.

All I could think of was: How desperate would you have to be to shoot up from a bag that is marked “Game Over.”?

But is the game over? Hardly.

“We have a number of full-time people who are on top of this daily,” Sgt. Sicko notes, “you’re seeing a significant increase in heroin arrests because our people, working with other law enforcement divisions such as the State Police, as well as a network of informants, are battling this daily and we have no intention of pulling back.”

“We are nowhere near the level of activity of other cities precisely because we are fortunate to have a group of young officers who are dedicated and on top of things… when a dealer comes to town to set up shop, we usually know who that person is already,” he continued. “But it’s a matter of constant vigilance.”

In that connection, Sgt. Sicko noted that while the profile of the heroin user the police are has gotten younger, this is not a major problem at either the High School (where he lauded the work of Officer Lloyd Davis who is stationed there), or on the Skidmore campus at this point.

The Prevention Council confirms this, to some extent. “Our data from student surveys in Saratoga County show about eight percent of high school students are involved in prescription drug abuse and one percent reporting using heroin,” noted Janine Stuchin.

Any law enforcement officer would acknowledge that even with a consistent focus on interdicting heroin supply, long-term effectiveness of any effort is dependent upon programs that educate and impact on demand. Sgt. Sicko, while acknowledging that the restoration of D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) funding in the city is something on his “wish list,” cites that the education programs provided by the Prevention Council are invaluable.

“The role of the Prevention Council in addressing the scourge of heroin in our community is to be preventive rather than reactive.” Ms. Stuchin said. We do this though programs, like Too Good for Drugs, taught in many local school districts, which educate children on the inherent dangers.”

“We regularly collaborate with law enforcement with drug take-back days. For instance, the next National Prescription Take-Back Day will be Saturday, April 26 and we will be announcing local sites that will be participating.”

But both the police and Prevention Council note that the real education and greatest impact is an outgrowth of effective parenting. “Parents should not be afraid to talk to their kids and find out ‘what do you know about this stuff?’ Look at who they are hanging out with and take note of changes in behavior and appearance, for instance.” Sgt. Sicko says.

While it would be nice to have an ending here, in fact this is a story about the process of progress, the ebb and flow of societal struggles and responses; perhaps a battle that will never be won, but nonetheless a battle worth undertaking daily.