OLEAN — The Olean Police Department feels a dent has been made in the city’s heroin problem — officers say the opioid is less available on the street and there are fewer emergency calls for overdoses.
But, they now worry some local residents may be putting down heroin and picking up methamphetamine.
“I’m not saying the heroin problem is over by any means,” said Olean Police Chief Jeff Rowley, “but there seems to be a little bit of a lull in that area and it’s picking up in the meth.”
The fears come as three small, alleged meth labs have been found in Olean residences over the last three months. A total of four arrests were made within the last week in connection to two of the residences, located at 115 Orleans Ave. and 119 Irving St., and police say charges are still pending in the other case at 508 Wayne St.
The problem isn’t just in Olean. Last year New York State Police reported discovered meth labs in the state increased from an average of 118 per year from 2010-14 to 447 in 2016. Through June, that number was on pace to increase 24 percent in 2017.
In light of the law enforcement crackdowns and high number of overdoses that come with heroin, local officials think some drug users are taking a misguided approach to view meth as a cheaper, easier — and safer — alternative.
“Because heroin can be so unpredictable, we’re now seeing maybe a conversion back to methamphetamine for some drug users because they want to live and they don’t want to take that chance,” said Dr. Kevin Watkins, Cattaraugus County public health director and chair of the county’s Heroin-Opioid Task Force, “and so they are getting something they think can give them that high, but they don’t have to deal with the possibility of overdosing as quickly and not being able to get rescued.”
For Olean, the heroin epidemic seemed to reach something of a peak in June, when three Olean men died of a heroin overdose in the span of one week. The deaths left Cattaraugus County with 11 heroin overdoses in the first six months of 2017.
However, there were just three unconfirmed heroin deaths in the last six months of 2017, said Watkins, who noted the deaths are not yet confirmed as heroin overdoses because the individuals had other drugs in their system as well.
“We find that to be an encouraging sign, however, we still have a lot more work to do,” Watkins said.
Use of Narcan — the antidote for opioid overdoses — also appears to be going down in the county. There were 45 reported cases of police, firefighters and paramedics administering Narcan in 2017 compared to 68 reported cases in 2016, according to data collected by Southern Tier Health Care System Inc.’s free Narcan-distribution program, Southern Tier Overdose Prevention Program, or STOPP.
Jeffrey Ciminesi, Southern Tier Health Care System prevention coordinator, previously told the Olean Times Herald he thinks the numbers are annually underreported.
In Olean, police administered Narcan five times in 2017 after beginning to use it in November of 2016, said Olean Police Capt. Mike Marsfelder. They have not used it thus far in 2018. Olean Fire Lt. Tim Richardson said the Olean Fire Department used Narcan 33 times in 2017 compared to 38 times in 2016.
Olean police are also seeing less controlled buys of heroin.
“In the last year or two, we were able to get heroin real easy from a lot of different sources, but now it’s more difficult, and that’s a good thing,” said Olean Police Capt. Robert Blovsky, head of the city’s Criminal Investigation Unit. “Now people are talking about getting meth and making it.”
Authorities say the typical meth lab is a much smaller, less complicated operation than some may think. The process can even be done in a car.
A popular technique is the one-pot method, which entails mixing ingredients like household cleaning products in a container such as a plastic 2-liter bottle. The three recent alleged meth labs in Olean have all been described by police as using a similar method. Blovsky said they’re more “meth cooks” than meth labs.
The one-pot method is more often for personal use rather than to sell on a large scale, said state police Sgt. Nathaniel Stobert in a previous interview. Stobert is team leader for the Western New York division of state police’s Contaminated Crime Scene Emergency Response Team, which handled the cleanup of the three suspected Olean meth cooks.
However, the method still presents the same dangers as a larger operation, like materials that can explode, catch fire or generate harmful fumes. Police and firefighters discovered suspected meth-making materials in both the Orleans Avenue and Wayne Street residences in November after responding there for a fire.
“It’s crazy,” Blovsky said. “We’ve had two fires because of it. They’re endangering other people in the house. Just the smell and the toxicity of what’s coming out of their apartment and going into another apartment is a problem as well.”
The fumes can often permeate a living space for months and sometimes years, Watkins said.
Anxieties over meth use are also being felt by some in the local addiction support community. In the Facebook group for Winning Olean Back, which hosts addiction support meetings and even citizen Narcan trainings through STOPP, members expressed fear meth will be the “next epidemic,” and that are more residences in the city housing meth cooks.
“With so many concentrating on stopping opioids, I think many will turn to meth as a way to make money,” said Shannon Scott, executive director of Winning Olean Back. “I fear we will see a heavy influx because what's needed to make meth is available and is easy to sell.”
TheCombat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 bans over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine, which is commonly used to make meth. Law enforcement officials often warn of “smurfers” who purchase the drug and sell to meth manufacturers to get around regulations.
Watkins said such regulations helped put a dent in meth production for several years, but perhaps stricter regulations are now in order. He said the county is focused on increasing access to rehabilitation, including with the new 20-bed, CAReS facility for women in Westons Mills currently under construction.
Rowley said he and other supervisors are planning “refresher trainings” for officers on what to look for when entering a possible meth cook.
Based on the Times Herald’s news reports, the last reported meth lab bust within city limits was in September of 2014.
“We hate to see it rear its ugly head here because we had a little problem a few years ago and then it kind of died out,” Rowley said, “and now it’s back in full force.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)