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Opiate use -- a growing, dangerous problem

Updated 11:14 am, Sunday, March 16, 2014
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[Editor's Note: The following is the first of a three-part series published in the Sunday, March 9, edition of The News-Times. See the Sunday, March 16, edition of The News-Times or visit www.newstimes.com and www.newmilfordspectrum.com for Parts 2 and 3].

The image of quaint, New England charm, the Village Green stretching along Main Street from Bridge Street to Elm Street... this is New Milford.

Yet among the 307-year-old New England town's modern advancements is one that goes largely unseen -- a heroin epidemic that, as in other area towns and across Connecticut, has become as commonplace as Colonial graveyards.

"I hear of overdose deaths weekly," Erin Damato, an addiction recovery counselor based in New Fairfield, said of the state's heroin issue. "Young -- in their 20s, 30s -- people dying from this disease. It's rampant as opposed to 15 years ago, 20 years ago."

It is a scourge that has migrated from the inner cities of the 1970s to the suburbs of today, thanks in large part to painkillers prescribed by doctors for legitimate ailments that can lead to addiction to opiates.

"You hear the word `heroin' a lot more commonly in the last couple of years," said Kevin Kwas, intervention program manager at the New Milford Youth Agency.

"You think of images of the homeless people in New York City. That's what I kind of thought of and it's not the case, clearly. Everyone's exposed to it."

spotlight on the problem

The problem has been percolating below the surface for years, but the high-profile overdose death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has highlighted the deadly heroin habit.

In Vermont, a place best known as an escape for skiing and summertime serenity, Gov. Peter Shumlin dedicated his entire State of the State address to the state's "full-blown heroin crisis," which "started as an Oxycontin and prescription drug addiction problem."

And even in picture-perfect New Milford -- a town where multimillion-dollar mansions overlook Candlewood Lake and the median household income is more than 10 percent higher than the state's, where the public schools are good and almost 60 percent of the households are made up of families with both a mother and father present -- heroin has taken hold.

"Heroin is here -- it's not just a big city problem anymore," Kwas said. "Heroin has always been the scary one that people just don't want to think that it's here. They don't want to think that their kids are being exposed to it, but unfortunately it is here."

The problem was particularly acute in New Milford last year, when there were eight overdose deaths related to opioids, four of them involving heroin, according to data provided by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

For New Milford -- a town of just more than 28,000 -- the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths per 100,000 people was more than twice as high as the rate in Danbury and Bridgeport last year and almost three times higher than the rate in Stamford, an analysis of data provided by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner found.

"Most of them are middle-class," said Dr. Peter Rostenberg, an addiction specialist based in New Fairfield.

"The last heroin epidemic was in the early '70s, and that was mostly minorities using," Rostenberg said. "Today, opiates -- including heroin -- is a white person's illness."

A heavy toll

That illness took eight lives in New Milford last year.

Three overdoses came early in the year. Then, with the stifling heat of late July, a series of overdoses began that would take one more life in each of the next four months.

"There was a spike," said Allison Fulton, executive director of the Housatonic Valley Coalition Against Substance Abuse.

Scott Lovito was the first.

Lovito moved in with his mother, stepfather and two sisters on Stephanie Drive in New Milford in 2011 after finishing high school in Greenwich. He was a week shy of his 22nd birthday when his mother found him laying dead on his bed the morning of July 23.

"I knew he smoked pot and was drinking," Lovito's mother, Kimberly Lapegna, said. "I was unaware he was even doing heroin until after he passed away."

An autopsy concluded that Lovito died of acute intoxication of three substances: morphine, tramadol and fentanyl, a potent opioid painkiller that dealers will sometimes mix with heroin and which has been raising alarms across the country due to its high risk of overdose.

The next came just five days later, on July 28. An autopsy found heroin and fentanyl in the victim's system, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

A little over three weeks later, on Aug. 15, Jessica Bradley, 19, a student at Western Connecticut State University and a New Milford High School graduate who excelled in the school's theater program, died of a heroin overdose.

A month later, another New Milford High School graduate, Tyson Miller, 23, died of an overdose of ethanol and Oxymorphone, a prescription opioid, on Sept. 25.

A month later, another heroin overdose death.

"The thing is, it's not as prevalent as marijuana use," Fulton said. "It's the severity of the problem that's so scary. We're talking about when it gets you -- the same 5 to 10 percent of people that it really, really hooks -- it's potentially lethal every time you use it."

Seesaw of drug use

Experts believe the blame for heroin's growing reach across the country can largely be put on the shoulders of prescription painkillers, a common precursor to heroin use.

"The problem with heroin is it's cheaper than prescriptions," said Kwas, who also coordinates the New Milford Substance Abuse Council. "A lot of kids start on the opiates or things like that and their prescriptions run out ... and (heroin) is very similar chemically to a lot of the opiates, similar effects. A lot of times it's easier to get and cheaper. Cheap and accessible."

Prescription drug abuse remains a public-health crisis in its own right, but after years of growth in the number of users a slight decline has begun. Meanwhile, the use of heroin has seen a drastic uptick.

"This is a public health crisis," Rostenberg said of opioid abuse. "We're losing some of our best people at a very early age."

Its affluence and postcard-ready Village Green aside, heroin is not entirely new to New Milford.

In 2007, police discovered that a house on Candlewood Lake Road served as the home base of a group trafficking large amounts of heroin and cocaine up and down the East Coast. The operation was disrupted by federal authorities, and four of the five men involved have since either pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial. A fifth was murdered in Guatemala before he could be charged.

The affordable opiate

Heroin does not so much grip users on its own as prescription painkillers -- Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet -- hand them off to the increasingly available alternative.

"I don't so much find young people just jumping out and experimenting with heroin," New Milford Police Lt. Larry Ash said. "There is some of that, but I think in our experience a lot of people are using heroin as a result of pain medication."

And once the body becomes addicted to an opioid, the craving is all-consuming.

Where a day's worth of heroin might cost a user only $30, just one OxyContin pill can cost more than double that amount, Damato said.

Unlike the pills that started their addiction, measured in strength by milligrams, every bag of heroin a user snorts up their nose or shoots into their veins is a mystery. A particularly strong batch or one that has been tainted with another drug can turn a user's typical dose lethal.

Young and addicted

While the patients' treatment providers typically see tend to be in their 20s, heroin can affect people from all ages, from teenagers up through adults.

"You can't really look into a crowd of people and know who's using heroin and who's not using heroin or know who's got an opioid addiction and who doesn't," Fulton said.

In 2012, the average ages of a first-time heroin users and painkiller users were 23 and 22.3, respectively, according to the national survey.

Ash said the youngest heroin users usually found are in their 20s but they are also as old as their 40s. Teenaged users are more rare.

However, Fulton said she had heard rumors that heroin had started to reach younger teens in the area.

"Our fear is always with seeing these trends is that if it's popular with that group, it will trickle down," Kwas said.

Although New Milford's spike in overdose deaths late last summer opened some eyes to the issue there, to Fulton it is only one more example of an issue that affects every corner of the state.

"Town by town across Connecticut, the issue seems to be pretty much the same," said Fulton. "It doesn't matter if it's Bridgeport or Hartford or Danbury or a small town."

domalley@newstimes.com, @domalleynt, 203-731-3350