County officials detail progress, programs in combating problem

Suffolk Summit Addressed Opioid Crisis

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone addressing the “Stories from Suffolk” forum on opioid abuse at the Dormition of The Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Southampton February 6. Independent/Gianna Volpe

The “Stories from Suffolk” summit hosted by County Executive Steve Bellone and the Rockefeller Institute of Government brought hundreds of people — politicians, police, professors, and priests — to the Dormition of The Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Southampton on Wednesday, February 6, to discuss the county’s ongoing opioid crisis. It also detailed how $7.5 million in state grant money will be used to expand prevention, treatment, and recovery services combating substance abuse throughout New York.

Though the county’s reported opioid deaths in 2018 were nearly half what they were in 2017, falling from 403 to 238, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul said officials won’t be satisfied until that number is reduced to zero. “I’ve been to far too many funerals in the last two years,” Hochul said of those who have died from drug overdoses, adding opioid abuse ultimately claimed her nephew’s life after doctors “over-prescribed” painkillers for an injury the high school student sustained while working part-time at a delicatessen.

“Within 14 days, the brain chemistry changes and all of a sudden addiction can set in, whether you wanted it to or not and so taking these prescriptions — getting refills — led to a dependency, loss of job, walking away from school, in and out of jail. It was horrible, and we thought he’d turned a corner,” she said. “He got back to school, got a job, got a girlfriend, was working on his master’s degree. One slippage years later — because of Fentanyl now lacing the drugs — took him like that and his mother found him with a needle in his arm.”

The conference’s keynote speaker, Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini, said the justice system is expanding its abilities to identify millions of Fentanyl “analogs” now found in heroin and other street drugs. It is also using the manslaughter statute to target dealers who peddle products resulting in fatalities. “These are people who knew the dangers of the drugs they were selling,” Sini said, adding increased wiretapping and phone seizures has helped stem the tide of opioid deaths.

“We have one wiretap that revealed an intercept where the drug dealer said, ‘This has mad bodies on it’ . . . meaning ‘the drugs I’m selling . . . it’s so good it’s killing people,’” Sini said. “They know what they’re doing and they need to be held accountable.” Sini said the county used money seized from drug dealers to purchase a $300,000 Q-Tof Mass spectrometer to identify Fentanyl analogs at the Suffolk County Laboratory. In 2018, 92 arrests were made — with $23,900 in reward money paid — based on tips made to the Suffolk County Police Department’s Crime Stoppers hotline. Sini said the number of executed police search warrants have more than tripled since 2015. “It disrupts drug operations before they get too significant, it takes dangerous drugs off the streets, and in 30 percent of our search warrants, we’re recovering illegal firearms,” the district attorney said.

“It also sends a very clear message to the community that we’re not going to stand for this. It empowers people in the community to cooperate with law enforcement and when the Suffolk County Police Department executes a search warrant in your neighborhood, you know about it, because it’s not subtle and that’s the right message,” he added.

Sini detailed county programs aimed at providing intervention at every step of the incarceration process, including the Preventing Incarceration Via Opportunities for Treatment program, which resulted in 59 of the 465 individuals referred between November 2017 and 2018 receiving counseling/treatment. Sini said he and Bellone are currently working on a new program called Diversion Opening Opportunities for Recovery Services, which will focus on helping people in the post-arrest, pre-arraignment period.

“This is based on a program a lot of you have probably read about in Gloucester, Massachusetts,” the district attorney said of options that will be afforded to some drug offenders following arrest. “They’re given the opportunity to accept treatment as opposed to being put in the criminal justice system. The deal is very simple: If you meaningfully engage treatment, not only will you go home that night — assuming the person is sober — but your appearance in court will be pushed an extra 30 days and, if you continue to meaningfully engage treatment as determined by the medical professionals, your case will be
dismissed and sealed.”

The post-incarceration “Vivitrol” program seeks to administer medication blocking the effects of opioids for 30 days to offer soon-to-be released inmates an edge over addiction before release. Many of Wednesday’s speakers touted the efficacy of medication-assisted treatment — the use of medication alongside counseling and behavioral therapy — over abstinence-based approaches. Many organizations are focusing on easing public access to medications.

For some, abstinence is a goal, said chief counsel Robert Kent of the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. However, he noted, “If it’s a chronic disease and we’re treating people, we’ve got to treat them where they’re at. The one thing we’ve found with what we’re dealing with: If you don’t engage people and connect them to help, they die.”

For more information about finding state-certified outpatient or bedded programs with OASAS, visit findaddictiontreatment.ny.gov.

@GiannaVolpeReport