BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - Ben Francis never thought a sports injury at the age of 16 would lead to a decade-long struggle with drug addiction.
“I couldn't imagine a life where I would feel normal again without drugs,” said Francis, who has been clean for about a year.
His struggle began when he started taking prescription painkillers for an injury suffered in high school.
But he says that eventually led him down a path to heroin use.
“I can get twenty bags and do them all in a day -- and it's just -- the high isn't there anymore. You're always chasing that first high,” he said. “The cravings are real. The cravings throw anything rational out the window.”
Francis finally broke free of the drug’s powerful hold after detoxing 7 to 8 times
“I just feel like Ben again. It's almost like I fell asleep when I was 16 and I woke up and I'm 27.”
The opioid-heroin epidemic crosses all boundaries and can be felt in the biggest and smallest communities across Western New York.
“I have never seen it this bad,” said Alan Rozansky, narcotics chief for the Erie County Sheriff’s Office. “Right now this is not a city problem anymore. This is everywhere in Erie County. There isn't a corner of this county where I could say there isn't any heroin use.”
The abuse of pills and heroin are taking a huge toll across the nation, leading to increased crime and a spike in fatalities.
Rozansky first began working narcotics in the 1970s. He says heroin has been around for decades, but doesn’t remember a time when there was such a high demand.
“There's people that will sell the heroin and get arrested. Go to jail, get bailed out and feel like there's so much profit in it they hop right back into business right away without the fear of being caught,” he said.
About 80 percent of people using heroin started with a prescription painkiller problem, according to John Flickinger, Resident Agent in Charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Buffalo.
“They started by abusing painkillers and then switched over to heroin when they couldn't afford the painkillers or have access to them anymore,” said Flickinger
He says the heroin used in Western New York is mostly a powder form, and that people usually start by snorting or sniffing, and then transition to injecting it.
“It's scary because you're physically, not just mentally, physically addicted,” he added.
According to the DEA, most of the heroin that ends up in the Buffalo-Niagara region moves up from the southwest border via distribution by Mexican drug cartels.
The supply eventually moves to place like Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York City.
“New York still reigns as one of the leading distribution points for heroin, because heroin's traditionally been like a Northeast, Midwest drug,” Flickinger explained.
He says the DEA’s New York Division seizes one-third of all heroin grabbed by the DEA nationally.
The heroin market has taken off to fill a void left by drug users seeking out pills which are generally more expensive than street heroin.
Law enforcement veterans like John Flickinger say pills on the street will run anywhere from $50 to $60 dollars, while a baggie of heroin sells for about $5 to $10.
It's big business, driven by an insatiable demand.
And if all of this isn't enough -- enter fentanyl -- an extremely dangerous synthetic opioid 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin.
Flickinger says fentanyl is mixed with heroin for a much stronger boost.
“You can have one baggie that has one grain of fentanyl and then another baggie that has five grains of fentanyl or ten, and that's where you have a person that overdoses and dies.”
The pace of addiction and death is fast and furious.
Ben Francis says it took a few months before he started feeling sick in the morning; thinking it was an allergy or a cold, he didn't realize his body was withdrawing.
“I always thought it took years to get addicted to something -- like years and years and years,” he said.
That powerful craving for more. Where does it come from?
“It turns out everybody has an addiction,” said Dr. Richard Blondell, a professor at the University at Buffalo’s Department of Family Medicine who’s been recognized nationally for his work in the field of addiction.
Blondell says in certain people drugs have a way to reprogram the brain.
“Try to go three days without water. Try to go two weeks without food. And see if you feel a compulsion to drink water or eat food,” he said.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Opioids act by attaching to specific proteins called opioid receptors, which are found in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract and other organs in the body. When these drugs attach to their receptors, they reduce the perception of pain.”
Dr. Blondell added: “These drugs hijack that natural addiction system in our brain. Once they've done that it's very difficult for people to go without it.”
Blondell says our natural addiction system compels people to drink water when thirsty and eat food when hungry. He says this system is needed for survival.
“In some individuals, opioids can fool the brain into thinking that taking drugs is necessary for survival. Current research is searching for how exactly drugs hijack this survival system. If we can understand that, perhaps we can offer better treatments.”
Ben Francis knows the power of addiction.
“Could I have stopped at any point? Yes. Did I want to? No. Did my body want to? No. It's very scary to imagine a life outside of using when you've using so long,” Francis added.
Most agree that solving the opioid-heroin crisis, which affects millions of people, requires a collective effort.
“It's going to take a few years. But you know what, if we can continue with the education, the prevention, enforcement, decrease the availability. I think there's a lot of hope,” said John Flickinger.
Alan Rozansky added: “This is a three-pronged approach. You have to have education. You have to have rehabilitation. You have to have enforcement. Without all three you're never going to solve this problem.”
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