Home / News / News Features / Top New York Prosecutor Sheds Light on What Milwaukee Can Expect in the Growing Heroin and Painkiller Crisis

Top New York Prosecutor Sheds Light on What Milwaukee Can Expect in the Growing Heroin and Painkiller Crisis

Jun. 10, 2014
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Heroin Crisis
“America’s got a big taste for painkillers,” New York Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan told the crowd assembled at last week’s regional symposium on heroin and opiate addiction, which was launched by Milwaukee Common Council President Michael Murphy and supported by the Zilber Family Foundation.

Brennan, a Brookfield native, spoke about her experiences in New York so that Wisconsin law enforcement, policy experts and health professionals can learn from them.

“What I have seen as a prosecutor is that if you have supply you will have demand,” Brennan said at the Heroin: Not On Our Watch regional symposium.

She said New York’s last heroin epidemic occurred in the 1970s. But “generational amnesia” has caused few to remember the horrors it created, she said.

“We’ve forgotten and our children never knew about it,” Brennan said. “They never knew the terrible, terrible consequences of doing heroin.”

The current epidemic is unique in two ways, Brennan explained. Today’s heroin is far more pure than it was back in the 1970s, leading more users to accidentally overdose. It’s also happening at the same time American doctors are over-prescribing legal opiate-based painkillers like oxycodone, Percocet or Vicodin, which are gateway drugs to heroin.

The problem facing law enforcement, Brennan said, is that heroin is illegal in every state and can be intercepted by using tried-and-true methods of narcotics busts, such as wiretapping. But narcotic painkillers are legal for prescription-holders and beneficial for those who are suffering from high levels of pain. That means that law enforcement has to get creative about keeping them out of the hands of abusers.

“We take very different approaches even though the effect of the opioid, the effect of the addiction, is exactly the same,” Brennan said.


Big Pharma Lied About Addictive Pills

The painkiller problem “sneaked up” on law enforcement, Brennan said, but became noticeable when prescription medications were being seized in New York neighborhoods mostly known for crack and cocaine. Pills were also being dealt by car delivery services and in ice cream trucks.

Brennan said the appetite for narcotic pills developed in the mid 1990s, when doctors were over-prescribing painkillers under the mistaken belief that they weren’t addictive.

“They would give you a 30-day supply when a 3-day supply was all you needed,” Brennan said.

The unused pills were resold on the black market and, as we now know, are habit-forming. Brennan said that executives from Purdue Pharma, which claimed that its Oxycontin couldn’t be abused, had to plead guilty to criminal charges in 2007 for misleading doctors.

Brennan said the legal prescriptions for oxycodone in New York spiked from a half-million in 2007 to a million by 2010—in a city with a population of 8.5 million. Accidental overdose rates related to prescription drugs surged.

She and her prescription drug unit worked with local medical providers to develop solutions, including educating doctors on the dangers of over-prescribing painkillers and preventing emergency rooms from prescribing more than a 3-day supply of opiate drugs on weekends.

“Typically, drug seekers will come into emergency rooms on the weekends to get a full prescription, a 30-day prescription, and then they would be out selling it and marketing it,” Brennan said.


Record-Breaking Heroin Seizures

Brennan said that for the first time in five years, the number of opiate prescriptions has decreased in New York. But at this point the heroin epidemic has already become entrenched in the city. 

Roughly 20 years ago, when legal painkillers started becoming a problem, heroin began being produced in Colombia, not Asia, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allowed for easier border crossings into the U.S. by Mexican drug cartels.

“Heroin to the cartels is a better product to sell than cocaine,” Brennan said. “They can make more money off a kilo of heroin and it’s lighter and they can more easily conceal more of it.”

She said that in this year alone in New York about 300 pounds of heroin have been seized, worth about $40-$60 million on the streets. That’s already eclipsed heroin seizures in all of 2013 and every year since her office began tracking it in 1991, Brennan said.

Today’s heroin is far more pure and potent than it has been in the past, the likely cause of so many accidental deaths. It’s trucked up from Mexico with stops in large cities along the way, where it’s packaged in small glassine envelopes in factory-like operations. In New York, it’s being sold via Craigslist with specific code words, although she didn’t see any evidence of that happening in Milwaukee—yet. She had to work with Craigslist executives to get them to remove those terms from their site.

“Our goal is to put a big crimp in the supply, to really break up that supply chain,” Brennan said.


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