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Suburbia’s Deadly Secret

When a great place to raise children is also an easy place to score drugs

by Jennifer Austin on August 21, 2013 · 13 comments


Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Route 43 in Rensselaer County is a winding rural road that offers scenic views of rolling hills and endless grassy fields, sporadically populated with old farmhouses and single-family homes with landscaped flowerbeds and manicured lawns. About a 20-minute drive from Albany, most of it along Route 43, Sand Lake is a quiet town with housing developments set back from the main roads, where neighbors might join each other for a summer swim in the pool or a family barbecue on the back deck. AJ’s Pizzeria, Deanna’s Country Shoppe and Bridal Boutique, and the Pie Squared Bakery and Sweet Shop are a few of the independently owned stores spread out along the county route.

The small town of Sand Lake, which includes the hamlets of Averill Park and West Sand Lake, has been popular over the years with city dwellers who have come to enjoy the seven lakes, some of which boast docks and sandy beaches, and the Poestenkill Falls, a glistening waterfall and swimming hole tucked away in the woods. Like many rural towns that once were blanketed with farms, Sand Lake increasingly has become more of a suburb, families lured by the peacefulness and quality of life; the Averill Park School District was ranked 14th out of 85 in the Capital Region in the Business Review’s 2013 Schools Report. This is a town where the smell of freshly cut grass lingers in the air, and all that can be heard on a typical summer evening is a few dogs barking, a child dribbling a basketball, and the rhythmic chirping of crickets.

Early this July, on a Tuesday morning around 10 AM, it seemed like just another typical day in the small town. Residents gathered at the local Stewart’s shop on Route 43 in West Sand Lake and sat together in booths to share their morning cup of coffee and the daily gossip. But then the unthinkable happened. According to various reports from people in town, a young man stumbled out of the bathroom and told the clerk to call 911 because he had just taken a bad dose of heroin. Witnesses say that he collapsed outside the front door of the shop.

“This is a tragedy,” says Maria D’Amelia, a spokeswoman for Stewart’s, “and we’re saddened by what happened.” The 23-year-old, whom family members describe as an all-American boy who played sports, was a Boy Scout as a child, and loved his family, was later pronounced dead at Samaritan Hospital in Troy.

Sand Lake is hardly the only community enveloped in the latest epidemic of drug abuse sweeping the nation. Local officials say the use of heroin is on the rise in many neighboring communities in the Capital Region, and with the death of Glee star Cory Monteith, who died from a combination of heroin and alcohol, the crisis is getting national attention. Communities from suburban Boston to Orange County, California, are plagued with the rise of both prescription drug and heroin use, and the overwhelming consensus is that it’s occurring at a younger age. Earlier this month, on the talk show Katie, in a segment titled “Dirty Little Secret in the Suburbs,” Katie Couric said that “thirty-four thousand kids between the ages of 12 and 17 will start using heroin this year. Over the last 10 years, teen heroin use has increased 80 percent from coast to coast.”

According to drugfreeworld.org: “In its purest form, heroin is a fine white powder, but more often it is found to be rose gray, brown or black in color.” It is sometimes cut with “strychnine or other poisons,” and when these additives don’t fully dissolve, they can “clog the blood vessels” and “lead to infection or destruction of vital organs.” It is difficult to know the “actual strength of the drug . . . and users are constantly at risk of an overdose.”

The town of Sand Lake is still abuzz over this young man’s death. And locals say he was the second young adult, both former students at Averill Park High School, to die in just two weeks. Family members say that they’ve heard one medical professional in the community say that he had lost 10 friends in the past two years—eight to heroin.


Dying young and fast: O'Neil-Haggerty says that once someone starts to use intravenously, death may be only months away. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“It’s an epidemic,” West Sand Lake resident Linda Martino said at the Rage Against Alcohol and Drugs (RAAD) community meeting at the Averill Park Firehouse on July 17. Martino added that she has been to five or six funerals of young adults in the past four years. “I’m tired of burying people. . . . It’s heartbreaking,” she says. “This heroin grabs a hold of everybody and sucks them right down. They’re good kids. They’re good kids. They come from good families.”

Leaders at the RAAD meeting told the room full of concerned friends, neighbors and relatives of troubled local youths, that it often starts with prescription drug use, and some high school kids are going to parties where a big bowl of pills are set out for consumption; that these young kids are popping pills and they don’t even know what they’re taking. Plus, they’re mixing it with alcohol. Kids are getting hooked on prescription drugs and that can lead to using harder drugs down the line. A young student stood up to speak. She told the crowded room that by the time she hit the eighth grade, it was all about drugs all the time in school.

“Eventually, the high [from prescription drugs] isn’t good enough and they turn to heroin,” says Jennifer O’Neil-Haggerty, Averill Park High School’s student assistance counselor. Prescription drugs can also be a very expensive habit to maintain. “The heroin is pure enough to be snorted, for a while. And it’s cheap. So they use that and, eventually, probably will inject.” She adds that once people start using intraveneously, death is often only about six months away.

RAAD leaders stressed to those who attended the July meeting, that if you think it’s not going to affect you or your children, you’re wrong: Everyone will be touched by this crisis in some way. The family members of the victims share similar sentiments: I never thought it would happen to my family. Now that I know, I see how big the problem is. Now I see the signs all of the time. It’s unavoidable.

“You’ve got to be aware of the change in the culture, the availability of things kids get high on. It’s everywhere, and you’ve got to know about it,” says Rensselaer County District Attorney Rich McNally. In last year’s annual drug survey of Averill Park students in grades 6 through 12, there was a startling discovery: Fifty-two percent of surveyed students said they don’t think drugs are risky. “There’s been a huge change in the last five, 10 years, seeing prescription drug abuse. The new crack is what I call the Rush Limbaugh,” McNally says, referring to a sharp increase in abuse of prescription drugs like Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin, and all prescription pain medications that fall into the opiate (narcotic) classification. Because they are prescribed by a doctor, there’s a perception that these prescription drugs are safe.


Finding hope: (l-r) Tator and Holser know that recovery from addiction is possible. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

New York state police and Rensselaer County sheriffs have set up a task force to handle the growing problem of drug abuse in the town of Sand Lake, but officials say it takes time. “Long-term narcotics investigations are just that,” McNally says. “You have to get out, gather intelligence from individuals . . . get confidentiality . . . learn how to get in and make transactions, and make investigations, and make arrests that are gonna stick. It takes time.” Community leaders contend that is why it’s important for the community to get involved and for parents to understand where the cycle of addiction is starting.

“It’s easy to think that the big bad drug dealers are out there luring our kids into taking drugs,” McNally adds. “It’s a convenient way to think, but that’s not what it is. We have a culture of a lot of different narcotics and drugs that are available to our kids in the home.”

RAAD leaders say that kids are even finding Fentanyl patches, a drug that is significantly stronger than Morphine and is typically prescribed for patients suffering with severe chronic pain who have grown resistant to other narcotic pain medications. They are cutting the patches up and eating them to get high.

The family of the young man who collapsed at the Stewart’s shop asked that his name not be printed here, and some would argue that the omission of his identity is symptomatic of a part of the problem. “Stigma is one of the hardest aspects of addiction,” says O’Neil-Haggerty, but “addiction is a disease, not a moral failure.”

If any good can come from the deaths in Sand Lake and around the country—which may be of little or no consolation to families who have lost loved ones—perhaps the publicity will help change the perception and stigma associated with heroin addiction. “I am a parent of one recovering addict and the other one is currently using and is on the streets,” said Barb Holser at the Averill Park RAAD community meeting. Holser added that she used to be in total denial about her children’s drug use. “No way can my kid take heroin, that’s for bums on the street. Well, it’s not.”

Holser’s children, she says, had very normal lives before they started using. “My kids were each the average child. They played baseball, my daughter did bowling, we went on family vacations. I went to all the school meetings like parents do.” Holser’s partner, Dave Tator, has been in recovery for 18 years. He attributes his success to work he does with a 12-step program.

O’Neil-Haggerty says, “Addiction is not planned, or a choice, and can happen very quickly. People who use opiates become physically dependent on the drug with the very first or second use.”

According to drugfreeworld.com, a 15 year-old addict named Sam said, “It will cling to you like an obsessed lover. The rush of the hit and the way you’ll want more, as if you were being deprived of air—that’s how it will trap you.” Experts agree that it is a powerfully addictive drug and that parents need to discuss with their kids how just one time could be the end.

According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, even if you don’t think your kids listen to you, studies show that “kids who believe their parents will be upset if they try drugs are 43 percent less likely to do so.” And parents need to understand that the head-in-the-sand notion that their kids would never use drugs is unrealistic. It’s difficult to accept because the negative perception of the heroin addict is everywhere. Rensselaer County DA McNally says, “It’s not us against them. It’s us against us.”

Most experts agree, on both a local and national level, that awareness and education are key and that drug abuse is starting with prescription drugs that kids are getting right out of their own homes. Experts say parents need to get rid of the drugs that they’re not using and monitor anything they are. They also need to talk to their kids even if they don’t suspect anything. “You gotta have these talks with your kids,” McNally says. He and RAAD leaders insist that your kids do listen to you, even if you think they don’t.

O’Neil-Haggerty adds, “You are the biggest influence. This is not a one-shot deal, and should be talked about many times over.” She also says that the community still doesn’t know what to do about the “18- to 27-year-olds who seem to be struggling the most at this point” and adds that her “number one hope is that young adults can receive treatment. Connect with a support group because recovery is possible.”

Holser hopes that message hits home. “I’m being open and honest about this,” she says, “because if I can just let any parent know and not let it get to this point, and to let them know there’s help and hope out there, that’s what I want. If I can change one person’s life, it’s worth it.”


Help Is Out There

RAAD meets on the third Tuesday of every month at the Algonquin Middle School Library at 6:30 PM. The next RAAD meeting is Sept. 17. RAAD encourages parents, students, and community members to attend. RAAD also encourages students to join the local chapter of SADD. Meetings are held monthly at the Averill Park High School.

For more information, join RAAD on Facebook @RAAD AP or obtain free alcohol and drug information and prevention publications from the National Clearinghouse on Alcohol and Drug Information at (800) 729-6686. You can also get help for alcoholism, drug abuse, and problem gambling at 1-877-8-HOPENY (1-877-846-7369).

To find treatment providers, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 24-Hour Toll Free Treatment Referral at 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357). Locally, Conifer Park offers a number of treatment programs, including inpatient and outpatient programs, and a new outpatient detoxification for opiates program. To contact Conifer Park, call 1-800-989-6446 or go to coniferpark.com.

You can also visit drugfree.org, timetotalk.org for tips and advice on starting conversations with your kids, drugfree.org/timetoact for parents who suspect or know their kids are using,drugfree.org/teenbrain for insight into teen brain development, and drugfree.org/parent for a Parent Tool Kit offering videos and articles on how to talk to your kids at any age.