Solutions to heroin, opioid epidemic proposed during Cortland forum

New York State Sen. James Seward speaks to reporters during a statewide forum on heroin and opioid addiction at the Cortland County Office Building (Cortland Voice)

CORTLAND, N.Y. - The New York State Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction hosted the fourth public hearing in a series of statewide forums Wednesday evening at the Cortland County Office Building to address the growing heroin and opioid epidemic and to develop legislative recommendations for treating and preventing addiction and its subsequent consequences.

Task force member State Senator James L. Seward opened the public hearing, addressing the urgent need for state and local collaboration to aid, treat, and cure communities attempting to tackle drug addiction.

“Heroin, opioid, and other drug addictions devastate lives, families, and entire communities. It’s absolutely vital we continue to target this epidemic from all angles—prevention, treatment, recovery, and law enforcement,” Senator Seward said. “I’ve served on the Senate’s Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction since its inception back in 2014, and I’ve learned this public health crisis knows no social, geographic, or economic bounds. Over the last three years, the Senate has made it a priority to address this public health crisis. We’ve enacted a number of new laws and funded key state programs, but even with all of that, there’s still much work to be done.”

Sen. Seward was joined by co-chairs Sen. George Amedore, Sen. Fred Akshar, and Sen. Chris Jacobs to hear testimonials from four panels of local experts and public officials in order to gain insight into the specific circumstances, challenges, and needs of Cortland County’s burgeoning public health crisis. As pointed out by Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti, an idiosyncrasy of Cortland County, is having a major interstate run through the county that, in many cases, acts as a conduit for illicit commerce and drug trafficking.

A sentiment shared across the board was the need for a paradigm shift on the social norms of drug-related issues by destigmatizing drug addiction, humanizing individuals afflicted with heroin and opioid addiction, and recognizing the intersection of mental health issues and substance abuse. Sen. Akshar said finding a lasting cure for a crippling public health crisis as pervasive as heroin and opioid addiction takes a community coalition—economically, socially, and morally.

“It is a real-life issue. It’s a quality of life issue that affects everyday New Yorkers,” Sen. Ashkar said. “It’s crippling this state, whether you look at it from an economic development standpoint, or social standpoint, or a moral standpoint. The greatest resource we have as a task force is our ability to take a bottom-up approach.”

Other key sentiments from local experts and stakeholders was the need for reliable, sustainable funding; expanding and implementing proactive, preventive incentives and programs; the ability to immediately connect people with treatment when they’re ready; and resources to divert and support individuals in hopes of breaking the cycle of recidivism.

Senators, local experts and stakeholders from health care, education, law enforcement, mental health, substance abuse, civic groups, and individuals directly affected by opioid abuse universally praised and cited the unwavering necessity for Narcan, the nasal spray that can pull a drug user back from an overdose.

A recurring object of interest and concern from various panels was how to protect and save lives while also taking into account the safety of first responders. Time constraints due to the nature and proliferation of drug-related emergency calls coupled with the lack of adequate, consistent funding and cultivating up-to-date and appropriate policy and procedures have made it difficult to provide sufficient action and care.

Nearing the end of the public hearing, Sen. Amedore, after gleaning input from all four panels, proposed as a possible legislative measure charging “big drug dealers” with homicide.

“This year, the members of the task force have had numerous discussions on the enforcement side because this is not a two-legged or three-legged chair, it’s four. There’s many members of the legislature who don’t want to talk about about the enforcement side because they think we’re going back to the Rockefeller drug days, which is not what we want to do,” Sen. Amedore said.

Directing his question toward District Attorney Perfetti and Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms, Amedore asked, “Do you think, having a law in the state of New York that gives you the ability to charge a big drug dealer with homicide and lengthen your investigation, would it help you in your effort?”

Both Helms and Perfetti agreed it could be helpful.

“I think a change in the law that might include a provision on the homicide statute could be helpful,” Perfetti said. “My predecessor criticized me by saying my three-prong approach was trying to turn my office into a human services agency. I’m not trying to do that. We can’t enforce our way of out this, and that’s why I think prevention, treatment and diversion, have to be our first two courses.”