Heroin dealers who prey on addicts many of them turning to the more lethal street drug because they can no longer afford prescription pain pills -- will now face the prospect of two decades behind bars.
That was the stern warning Monday from several top local law enforcement officials, who say stronger measures are required, given that as many as three people have died from heroin overdoses locally in the past few weeks.
Many more, they said, narrowly escaped death only because of swift medical intervention, as was the case with the more than 40 people brought to Erie County Medical Center in January alone who had overdosed on either heroin or illegally obtained prescription opioids.
Now, every time an individual overdoses on heroin or illegally obtained pain pills, the incident will be treated as a crime scene, and if the drug dealer can be identified, federal authorities say they will issue charges that could bring up to 20 years in prison.
"Using these bags of heroin is almost the same as shooting yourself with a gun, and if you are providing these bags of heroin, it is the same as pulling the trigger," U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said at a news conference in Buffalo Police Headquarters.
The increased demand for heroin is based on the burgeoning abuse of prescription opiates, according to Dale M. Kasprzyk, resident agent in charge of the Buffalo office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"Oxycodone costs about $1 per milligram, which is about $80 a pill. That's why these prescription drug addicts transition to heroin on the street. It's cheaper," Kasprzyk said.
At $15 a bag for heroin, it seems like a bargain. There's just one problem. Unlike the prescription drugs manufactured under strict quality control, there is very little concern about drug quality among drug dealers, who dilute heroin so that they can maximize their profits.
"There is no quality control. The dealers use old abandoned houses, making them into heroin mills," Kasprzyk said.
That may explain why so many people have been overdosing in recent months and now are dying, the officials said.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said that whatever substances drug dealers are adding to the heroin might be the reason for the increasing number of medical emergencies.
Drug dealers, Derenda said, "are cutting the heroin with God knows what."
Or, Kasprzyk said, the heroin might not be diluted and therefore might be too pure for drug addicts to handle, resulting in overdoses.
One other possibility for the increased number of overdoses, the DEA agent explained, is that addicts sometimes create toxicological "perfect storms" in their bodies by taking heroin along with prescription opiates, cocaine and other drugs. "It creates a synergy," he said.
There's yet another danger.
Many heroin addicts, Derenda said, are "young suburbanites" who travel into the city and end up doing business with dangerous street gang members.
Violence, including murder, is often associated with the drug gangs, according to Hochul. "We've had recent gang prosecutions involving the 10th Street Gang, and in Monroe County and there have been murders," he said.
But the problem of heroin overdoses is by no means exclusive to the Buffalo Niagara region, the U.S. attorney added. It has been occurring in other parts of the country as well.
Last week in Jamestown, eight people were arrested and 1.5 kilos of heroin and nearly $400,000 were seized by the DEA and the Southern Tier Regional Drug Task Force, Kasprzyk said.
People who are addicted to heroin and prescription pain medications, he said, need to seek medical treatment.