Our Addicted Island Hits Rock Bottom

The seeds of addiction have been sewn into the Long Island community and its roots have firmly taken hold. At a time when Long Island as a whole could use an intervention, funding for critical programs is being cut. LICADD Director Jeffrey Reynolds examines needed policy changes to put our Island on the road to recovery.

If four people being shot dead in a pharmacy isn’t hitting rock bottom, I don’t know what is. As the victims – Jaime Taccetta, Raymond Ferguson, Jennifer Mejia, and Bryon Sheffield – are laid to rest, they join Courtney Sipes and Rebecca Twain Wright and countless others who are also victims of Long Island’s drug crisis.

Sipes was run down on Main Street in Smithtown in November, 2009 by a driver allegedly high on heroin. Wright was gardening in her Hempstead front lawn when she was mowed down by Kayla Gerdes who was allegedly high on Xanax. Factor in all the others who each year, are killed by drunk or high drivers, in workplace accidents, assaults and other incidents and the collateral damage associated with unfettered and untreated addiction becomes absolutely stunning.

Indeed, addiction has always torn apart families, disrupted workplaces, ruined lives and given its progressive nature, often proves fatal to the one with the disease. But now it seems that the wreckage can’t be contained behind closed doors where families quietly and privately suffer the consequences – and is spilling out into the public domain, sweeping unsuspecting folks into its path.

How bad has Long Island’s addiction gotten when you can’t even pick up a prescription, cross a street or walk out your front door without being in danger? Or better yet, how bad does it need to get before we do something?

Pretty bad, it seems. After all, we’ve been talking about Long Island’s heroin crisis for years and the connection to prescription meds has been clear from day one. Addicts make the move to heroin from more expensive prescription meds once they figure out that 80mg of OxyContin costs $40-$50 on the street, while heroin runs just $10 per bag. Despite the media attention, school-sponsored parent workshops, legislative forums, educational campaigns and ambitious policy recommendations from blue ribbon panels like the Suffolk County Heroin and Opiate Task Force, not much has changed.

Arrests and overdoses continue to climb and the pain in our community is palpable, ironically due in large part to the misuse and diversion of prescription meds. That’s not to say that we should restrict access to medications that give chronic pain sufferers some relief and increased quality of life. As our population ages, we needn’t go back to dark ages, but we do need to get serious about a drug crisis that is claiming far too many lives. Here’s how:

  • Opiates are controlled substances. Control them. Prosecute the bad doctors that sell prescriptions and run pill mills. Convict them, take their licenses and sentence them like street drug dealers.
  • Educate, train and support the other 99.9% of doctors and physician assistants who try to do the right thing, but are often fooled by addicts who are charming, demanding and laser-focused on getting their fix.
  • Limit doctor shopping and pharmacy hopping by strengthening the prescription drug monitoring database to include real-time updates and give access to pharmacists. This database already exists, but is updated just monthly and only physicians – with limited time on their hands – have access to the information.
  • It’s time to reign-in the burgeoning pain management industry. The good guys will tell you that they can spot drug-seeking behavior a mile away, are willing to turn patients away, even if police intervention is required and they perform routine drug testing of patients. If you’ve been given a thirty-day supply of Vicodin and a quick urine test reveals that you’ve got none in your system or other drugs are present, then it’s time for a conversation.
  • National surveys suggest that 77% of those under the age of 25 get their first taste of prescription painkillers from their parents’ medicine cabinet, a friend or relative. How about we enforce state law requiring pharmacists to counsel patients picking-up prescriptions about the proper use and storage of medications? As consumers, we waive counseling when we sign that log at the pharmacy desk. A simple question from a pharmacist or pharmacy tech about whether there are teenagers in the home, along with a sentence or two about the addictive properties of opiate painkillers could go a long way.
  • OxyContin, Vicodin and other opioids are used to treat pain and are quickly replacing alcohol and marijuana as the drug of choice among adolescents. Being a teen has never been easy and kids have always done unsafe, unhealthy things, but we need to figure out why adolescence has become so damn difficult that our young people are turning to the strongest painkillers known to man to relieve the suffering. And by the way, how about we stop allowing pharmaceutical companies to promote expensive pills as a solution for everything from impotence to anxiety to difficulty urinating? 
  • Just as substance abuse is 100% preventable, addiction is treatable. Despite all the attention to heroin, drug treatment slots have not grown in recent years. In fact, they’re shrinking thanks to state budget cuts and an unprecedented demand for assistance. The Baldwin Council Against Drug Abuse, for example, is in the process of shutting down and two other drug treatment providers in Nassau will likely suffer the same fate before Summer’s end. Surviving agencies report long waiting lists and an unprecedented demand for help. We need to make treatment on demand a reality.

Without intervention and treatment, addiction is a progressive disease that often proves fatal. It gets worse as time goes on. It deepens and becomes more intractable. The risks to health, safety and well-being multiply and the consequences worsen. That’s where we are here on Long Island right now.

While accused Medford gunman David Laffer and his wife Melinda Brady have denied that they’re addicts, the storyline sounds far-fetched and may change at trial. Struggling with dependency, though, doesn’t earn them a free pass and if convicted they should be punished accordingly. The Medford murders do, however, remind us that our continued denial and collective failure to adequately address what has become Long Island’s top public health problem places each and every one of us at risk.