John C. Rowley ’82 is in his 22nd year of presiding as a judge — his 17th in Tompkins County Court — but heroin use has posed a unique, new challenge for the judge in the last three years, he told congregants at the First Congregational Church of Ithaca on Sunday morning.
“For those of us on the other side of the aisle, the receiving end of the addiction, it is extremely frustrating,” Rowley said.
Rowley, who earned his J.D. from SUNY Buffalo’s School of Law in 1987, said overprescription of opiate medication is partially to blame for the heroin epidemic, and asked people to rid their homes of unneeded medication.
“I would urge you to go to your medicine cabinet and get rid of everything that is narcotic because, believe it or not, your grandkids, or the gardener, or the cleaning lady, or anybody, is possible to be looking for that because it is so valuable,” he said.
“Thirty-two states continue to see this as an increasing epidemic,” he said. “We are talking about a majority of the country.”
The term “opioid” includes both heroin and prescription medications, and Rowley said a majority of heroin users began their addiction with prescription medications.
“There is definitely an easing of pain, a numbing of pain that opiates provide that matches up with those who use it,” he said.
Rowley reflected inward during his hour-long conversation with dozens of churchgoers, saying he has been in recovery for years.
“I didn’t have the emotional capacity to deal with being a teenager,” he said, referring to a time he smoked marijuana in eighth grade at a Boy Scouts camp. “I wanted to feel different.”
“The longer a teenager delays their first use of drugs or alcohol, the less likely they are to get addicted,” he added.
Rowley said that the court system, although not ineffective, is “a clumsy way to deal with addiction” and the drug users who end up before his court in handcuffs.
“It is very hard to take a public health approach on a matter that is so heavily criminalized, but I’m encouraged by [Ithaca’s] efforts,” he said, throwing his support behind the Ithaca Plan, proposed by Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 in February 2016.
The plan proposes a series of measures to reduce drug use and help drug users, the most publicized of which calls for the creation of supervised injection facilities, where heroin users could inject the drug under the supervision of medical professionals.
Rowley said the plan “challenges us at a very different level to tolerate something which we otherwise find intolerable, but I do think that the data supports that it saves lives.
“I think what it represents, symbolically, is that we’ll do anything, because what we are doing now is just counting people — we’re just counting bodies.”
Rowley said people should try to avoid defining others by their addiction — he does not use the word “addict” — and emphasized the importance of building a supportive community for those recovering from addiction.
“I think it is that sense of separation and isolation which is so devastating,” he said.
“Especially once you’ve gotten people into treatment and recovery, the community then is so important, because it won’t last without it.”