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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., talks with reporters on June 8, 2021. (AP) Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., talks with reporters on June 8, 2021. (AP)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., talks with reporters on June 8, 2021. (AP)

Conor Amendola
By Conor Amendola April 4, 2023

Fact-checking Chuck Schumer on Sullivan County, drug trafficking

If Your Time is short

• Sullivan County experienced the highest rate of opioid related deaths in New York state in 2018 and 2019, and in preliminary data for 2022

• Despite this, the federal government does not consider Sullivan County a High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, even though other New York counties are designated as such.

• The list of counties that belong to the Hudson Valley region is open to some debate.

In March, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., traveled to Sullivan County — in the Catskill Mountains — to urge the federal government to become more aggressive in its fight against opioid addiction.

"Sullivan County once again has the highest opioid death rate in all of New York State." Schumer said in a March 10 press release. "It’s the only county in the Hudson Valley not included in the federal High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area."

A federal High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area designation focuses attention and resources in those areas.

We found that Schumer’s statement is on target, with one caveat. Here, we’ll look at both ends of this apparent paradox.

Measuring the scale of the drug problem in Sullivan County

By car, Sullivan County is a little less than a two-hour drive away from midtown Manhattan and an hour and 15 minutes west of Poughkeepsie. Its population is 79,806; its largest city is Monticello.

It ranks below the statewide level in some key metrics. Sullivan County’s poverty rate is 17.1%, compared with 13.9% statewide. And the county’s $63,393 median household income ranks below the statewide figure of $75,157.

The New York State Opioid Annual Data Report from 2021 shows Sullivan County was far and away the statewide leader in opioid-related deaths in 2018 and 2019. In 2019, for instance, Sullivan County had 42.7 opioid deaths per 100,000 residents, when no other county’s rate exceeded 30. (Oswego County, north of Syracuse, ranked second with a rate of 29.6.)

 

The most recent figures, which are preliminary, show that Sullivan County in 2022 continued to have the highest opioid overdose death rate of any New York county.

The influx of the drug fentanyl has hampered any progress toward reducing opioid deaths in the county, Wendy Brown, Sullivan County’s deputy commissioner of health and human services told PolitiFact New York. It is not uncommon for residents to die during their first contact with fentanyl.

What is a High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area?

Congress created the federal High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area designation in 1988, intending to disrupt the market for illegal drugs by dismantling drug trafficking operations.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the program oversees 33 regional high-intensity areas in all 50 states, a Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C.

The High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program works in conjunction with federal, state, local, and tribal law to help combat the issue of drug trafficking in high-intensity areas across the country.

In New York state, the designation covers every borough of Manhattan, both counties on Long Island, and the Hudson Valley counties of Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Putnam, Ulster, Dutchess and Albany, plus adjoining Schenectady. It also includes 12 other counties, mostly in the northern and western part of the state.

Sullivan County is not included. 

Office of National Drug Control Policy (screenshot)

Officially, the designation stems from four criteria:

• The area is a significant center of illegal drug production, manufacturing, importation or distribution.

• State, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies have committed resources to respond to the drug trafficking problem in the area, thereby signaling a determination to address the problem aggressively.

• Drug-related activities in the area are having a significant harmful impact in the area, and in other areas of the country. 

• A significant increase in allocation of federal resources is necessary to respond adequately to drug related activities in the area.

Schumer argues that Sullivan County meets these criteria, including its proximity to a major transportation route, Route 17, and a "well-documented history of drug-related arrests."

"Here in Sullivan County, we have seen far too many neighbors and loved ones lost because of these criminals who target our most vulnerable," Schumer said in his statement. "Local law enforcement and our drug task force are doing all they can to fight the opioid crisis, but, to fight this epidemic, they need federal support to stop those who are selling drugs and killing people."

So, why is Sullivan County not considered a high-intensity area?

Sullivan County had tried twice before to secure the federal designation but was denied both times, Brown said. The county has a third application pending.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy did not provide PolitiFact with further information about why Sullivan County has not been included.

What counts as the Hudson Valley?

The only caveat for Schumer’s statement is that the list of counties belonging to the Hudson Valley region is open to some debate.

By some definitions, the Hudson Valley includes three other counties that don’t have the drug designation, either: Greene, Columbia and Rensselaer. (Some definitions consider these counties to be part of the Capital Region surrounding Albany.) None of the three have opioid death rates anywhere near Sullivan County’s.

In the meantime, Sullivan County is not always counted as part of the Hudson Valley. Some definitions consider it part of the Catskill region, though a state breakdown for tracking the coronavirus pandemic considers Sullivan County part of the "mid-Hudson" region.

Our ruling

Schumer said that Sullivan County, "has the highest opioid death rate in all of New York state" yet "it’s the only county in the Hudson Valley not included in the federal High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area" program.

Sullivan County had the highest rate of opioid related deaths in New York state in 2018 and 2019, and in preliminary data for 2022. Nevertheless, the federal government does not consider Sullivan County a High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, although other New York counties are designated as such.

However, the list of counties that belong to the Hudson Valley region is open to debate.

The statement is accurate but needs additional information. We rate it Mostly True.

Our Sources

Rep. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., news release, Mar. 10, 2023

New York state, Opioid Annual Data Report 2021

High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Summary, 2021

High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Map, 2023

High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Explanation, May 3, 2018

U.S. Census Bureau, quick facts for Sullivan County and New York state, accessed April 3, 2023

Hudson Valley magazine, "Your Guide to the Hudson Valley’s 10 Unique Counties," May 4, 2022

Interview with Wendy Brown, deputy commissioner of health and human services in Sullivan County, Mar. 30, 2023

Fact-checking Chuck Schumer on Sullivan County, drug trafficking

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