When SAFE in Sag Harbor’s Project Coordinator Danielle Laibowitz chose purple as the color of the organization’s swag bag, there was no other meaning behind it other than she was tired of blue and red, and just liked the color purple.
But the color could not have been more fitting for the bags when they were handed out during the organization’s drug take back day at the Sag Harbor Fire Department on Friday, August 31 — International Overdose Awareness Day. Purple, which symbolizes mourning, is the official color of the day and Laibowitz was glad to use it to get the organization’s message out into the community.
“It’s really all about prevention and using strategies that change the environment of the area. Taking the drugs out of the community changes the environment so that there are now less drugs in the community,” said Laibowitz, who arranged giveaways such as cellphone pop sockets, pens, and ice scrapers to spread the good word beyond the firehouse, in exchange for over-the-counter and prescription pain medications, some of them habit-forming opioid narcotics.
About 20 pounds of drugs were collected during the last take back in October, Laibowitz said. And as of 1 PM on Friday, eight people had turned out to the firehouse to drop off their donations, bringing the organization’s efforts pretty close to that of the last take back.
But this time, there were a few surprises. Some residents had donated hypodermic needles, although there were no plans to accept them. “I said, ‘no sharps,’” Laibowitz said. The collected drugs and hypodermic needles will be transported — via police escort — for incineration at Covanta Huntington LP, a waste disposal plant in East Northport.
Last year, an estimated 190,000 people worldwide died prematurely from drug use, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The United States alone counts for one in four of the world’s drug deaths, with roughly 64,000 people succumbing to drugs from January 2016 to January 2017, according to the Center For Disease Control.
In 2017, the Town of Southampton experienced 19 deaths — the highest death toll from overdoses in its history. That, combined with the death of a young Sag Harbor girl, Hallie Rae Ulrich, and her boyfriend, Michael Goericke, within a day of each other provided the catalyst for the formation of the Southampton Town Opioid Task Force, which has since been replaced with a panel aimed at devising prevention and treatment programs within the town.
The take back also has a less immediate purpose. It will reduce the amount of drugs that people flush down the toilet, an act which leads to groundwater contamination, according to Laibowitz.
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, who is a member of the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee, agreed the reason the drugs should be off the streets is two-fold. She said the first starts with keeping them “out of people’s homes, out of medicine chests, out of the hands of kids or people who have problems with addiction, because they can be abused.” Secondly, she explained, “In the olden days, people used to say, ‘Flush your unused medications down the toilet.’”
“We know now that is really disastrous for the bays, creek, and harbors,” she said. “The thing to do is to be organized, get the word out, and then have responsible agencies like the police department take custody of them and dispose of them properly, so that they stay out of the hands of people that might abuse them and they stay out of the bays and harbors where they could do so much harm.”
Assemblyman Fred Thiele agreed the drug take back is important for both public health and environmental reasons. “Take back programs are growing across the state and they are necessary for those reasons,” he added.
SAFE in Sag Harbor, the acronym of which signifies “for a substance-abuse free environment,” currently has about 250 members, with about 20 to 30 of them active volunteers. However, Laibowitz said it is looking for more people to join and help out. The next meeting is at Pierson High School’s library on September 18 and there will be a talk, “Tall Cop says ‘Stop,’” by opioid prevention advocate Jermaine Galloway, a retired police officer who speaks all over the U.S., on October 9. He will speak at a yet-to-be-finalized venue in three sessions aimed at helping parents, educators, and law enforcement identify the drug paraphernalia and hiding spots used by teenagers.
For more information about the organization, visit www.safeinsagharbor.org.