NEW YORK – The early returns on New York's "I-Stop" law are positive: since it took effect in August, the new online patient database for doctors has helped keep addicts from getting prescription painkillers from multiple places at once.
In other words, it's working the way it's supposed to.
But as UB Research Institute on Addictions Director Kenneth Leonard explains, the effort to curb prescription drug abuse may have an unintended consequence.
"There's going to be some people," Leonard said, "who will be seeking alternatives."
That alternative is heroin, which offers the same high as painkillers but comes much cheaper. The problem is, heroin doesn't work quite like painkillers do. Everybody knows what they're getting when they obtain a pill— but they don't have the same assurance from a heroin dealer.
"You don't know how much heroin you're getting, you don't know what the purity is," Leonard said. "And it has the potential for causing death with overdoses if you get too much of the drug."
Heroin use has increased drastically in Erie County during the past year, according to the health department. It's gaining momentum nationwide, too, and a rash of deaths have occurred within the past few months from heroin laced with a powerful derivative called fentanyl. Erie County reported multiple deaths during a one-week span in late January, and deaths have also occurred in Pennsylvania and suburbs of New York City.
Jessica Sherman, the director of the "Face 2 Face" program at Kids Escaping Drugs, said approximately 70 percent of the kids on her campus are recovering heroin addicts.
"They're spending hundreds of dollars a day to support a prescription pill habit, but they can go out into the street and purchase a bag of heroin for 10 dollars," Sherman said. "I could send any one of the kids that are here for heroin addiction right now to any school district or any other place in Western New York, and they could get their hands on it in probably minutes or hours."
Nationwide, Leonard said about 1.8 percent of Americans have used heroin at least once, a percentage still significantly lower than other drugs. For comparison, he estimates seven to eight percent of Americans have used prescription drugs.
But there's no denying the link between painkillers and heroin.
"It is one of the things we worry about, is the fact that people might be getting into heroin by virtue of their experience with prescription painkillers," Leonard said. "It may end up, that's going to be one of the outcomes of our attempts to tighten down on the prescription opiates: is that people who are abusing those may switch to heroin."