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Digging Deeper into the Opioid Epidemic: How Did we Get Here? Why is it So Bad?

The scope and depth of the opioid epidemic in Central New York is almost impossible for many to grasp, unless you’re an addict or on the front lines.  In the next part in our series, WAER News caught up with a long-time paramedic who tells us what makes this crisis so pervasive.

Lon Fricano says he’s seen plenty of heroin overdoses during his more than three decades on the job, previously in New York City and as director of operations for TLC Ambulance in Auburn.  But, he says THIS is a different animal.

"I don't think anybody was ever psychologically, mentally, emotionally, or financially prepared for this epidemic."

Fricano is also president of HEAL, the heroin epidemic action league.  He says it’s a massive, complex problem that mostly begins, of all places, at a doctor’s office.

Nick Campagnola of Auburn died in December 2015 from a "kill bag" of fentanyl. His addiction began after a doctor prescribed painkillers for a sports injury in high school. He was 20 years old.

"Eighty-five percent of opiate addicts became addicted to physician-prescribed medications.   These aren't people out there partying and trying to have a good time.  Nobody wakes up in the morning who's in their right mind, and says, 'gee, what a beautiful day, I think I'll go for a run, then shoot some heroin in my vein.' That does not happen.  It's a myth."

Fricano says the other 15 percent are self-medicating to deal with mental health issues.

"If you're sliding into the world of drug use to make you feel better, and you cross that you think anyone doesn't know heroin is dangerous?  If you're of a mindset that you're willing to try that, you already have a problem that needs to be addressed."

But he says this is not just any heroin.  And, the addicts know it.  Fricano says the fentanyl we’ve heard about is what makes it so much more dangerous.

"Drug dealers deliberately make what they call 'kill bags' that are much more potent than a normal bag.  They do this because, in the haze of a drug addicted mind, when someone overdoses and/or dies, others think 'oh, that guys' got the good stuff.  Let's buy from him.'  It's a marketing technique."

A technique that might have caused three recent overdoses in Cayuga County. 

In the next part of our series, how the lifesaving Narcan antidote is a blessing and a curse; and how the drug can cause permanent brain damage.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at