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Aug 8, 2018 10:19 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Forum At Center For Jewish Life Centers On Growing Opioid Epidemic

Aug 8, 2018 10:45 AM

When Cindy Goldberg was just a teen, she was prescribed opioids to treat menstrual cramps.

It was that easy.

The opioid epidemic is now a national issue, and the Town of Southampton is eager to crack down on drug addiction. On Thursday, August 2, Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki was joined by Rabbi Berel Lerman and a dozen individuals from the Sag Harbor Jewish community, including Ms. Goldberg, at the Chabad’s Center for Jewish Life in Sag Harbor, to discuss the issue and urge the public to be part of the solution.

“I was never told I couldn’t drive on it, was never told I couldn’t handle my children,” said Ms. Goldberg. “I clearly felt high. I knew it, but I kept taking it for my cramps. I did what the doctor told me.”

It wasn’t until she got into a car accident that she realized how powerful the drug really was.

In the past, opioids were extremely accessible through prescribed medication. Addicts would “doctor shop” and complain about pain to numerous doctors to get multiple prescriptions for opioids.

“There are people who go to doctors just for drugs,” Mr. Goldberg said. “Now, you can’t. As soon as you prescribe, their whole medical history comes up on the screen.”

State law using the Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing (I-STOP) was put into place nearly three years ago to prevent addicts from “doctor shopping.” If a doctor prescribes a drug, they are required to put all prescription records into a state database. Failure to do so can result in fines and imprisonment.

Chief Skrynecki gave a thorough five-part overview of the opioid and addiction crisis, while also answering questions from guests.

“I am a community police-oriented person,” Chief Skrynecki said. “That means I give to the community, but I also hope that the community will give back to me.”

He urged guests to receive and share his message to call police if they have any information regarding drug trafficking or drug-related business, giving them the option to remain anonymous. “If we get the information, we can act on it,” he said.

The first part of the chief’s presentation covered the origins of the opioid crisis, the history of the drug and where it came from. An opioid in its natural form comes from the poppy plant, which is farmed primarily in the Middle East but has made its way to South America. The United States has been bombarded with the new crop while also being introduced to synthetic opioids, maximizing the access to the addictive drug.

“I had a surgery just a year ago, and I went home with a vial of Oxycontin, and I think it was about 40 pills. I didn’t take one,” Chief Skrynecki said. “Being careful and knowing about the addictions of that, I stayed away from it, and I don’t have it now. It stayed in my medicine cabinet for a while—and that’s a problem.”

This was the chief’s second point of the discussion: how opioid addiction became such a big issue. People were finding themselves being over-prescribed opioids and were leaving them in their medicine cabinets, which led to exposure to children.

“Young people, for whatever reason, seem to want to explore different mind-altering experiences,” Chief Skrynecki said as guests nodded in agreement. “They started to realize that these pills will give you some type of euphoric feeling, and very foolishly thought, well, if it’s a prescribed pill, it can’t be that dangerous.”

According to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, parents did not view prescription drugs as dangerous—and neither did their kids. Most failed to realize how addictive and dangerous the drugs can be, and so their leftover medication was not stored or thrown away properly, which made it easy to fall into the wrong hands. The study calls for parents to be more educated and emphasize the importance of monitoring their prescription drugs.

The final three points of the chief’s presentation covered the topics of awareness, education and enforcement. “We have to wake people up,” he said. “I am surprised at even in the current state of things, there are still people who are living in our communities who don’t want to accept the fact that this could easily happen to you or your family member.”

Chief Skrynecki said his goal is to get out into the community and educate people about the seriousness of the crisis.

“We need to get to our kids. We need to make them aware, as well as their parents. We need to educate them as to how to avoid pitfalls,” he said. “Education and awareness hopefully leads to prevention.”

A big part of Chief Skrynecki’s role in fighting the opioid crisis is enforcement, and that means trying to cut down the supply. “If there’s no supply, then there’s no people using it,” he said. “But we know that you can’t arrest your way out of this. As much as we knock the supply down, it’s unlikely that we’ll eliminate the supply. Even if the drug is taken away, the addiction remains.”

The chief said his department has put efforts into cracking down on wholesalers. But drug trafficking is big business, he said, and if one seller is taken down, another usually replaces them. The police are looking for bigger sellers, but finding and removing those sources has proven to be difficult.

Chief Skrynecki is a part of the Southampton Town Opioid Task Force and works closely with the East End Drug Task Force. He is also a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which is headed by the Drug Enforcement Administration, and makes recommendations to Congress based on their drug trafficking observations. The chief said there have been significant changes in law enforcement over the past few years.

“In my [earlier] police career, we would look at an addict as a criminal,” he said. “We have changed our view of the addict from a criminal to a person with a medical condition that they may or may not want. That doesn’t mean we have shifted our views of the seller.”

In the case of a fatal overdose, sellers can be held responsible and be charged with manslaughter. There have been only a handful of cases tried on Long Island, because they are hard cases to prove. Southampton Town Police are currently pursuing someone responsible for a recent overdose in Flanders two weeks ago; no further information was given, since it is an active investigation.

Police departments have been holding annual trainings on how to administer Narcan, which is a drug that ultimately reverses the effects of an opioid-based chemical, in the event of an overdose. Chief Skrynecki said his department has been engaged in Narcan saves almost on a weekly basis, if not daily at times.

However, he reported that Narcan saves have decreased, meaning there have been fewer reports of overdoses, and the fatality rate from overdoses has decreased significantly compared to last year. In 2016, there were five opioid-related deaths in Southampton Town; in 2017, there were 19. As of August 2018, there have been only three deaths. At this time last year, there were 13.

“We had three too many, obviously, but three compared to 13 is a very significant improvement,” Chief Skrynecki said.

Gregg Solomon, a member of the Jewish Center, asked if there were any specific demographics or communities that attracted this addiction.

“Addicts have been around for a long, long time. If you look back in the ’70s, ’60s, ’50s, there were heroin addicts,” Chief Skrynecki said. “They were generally uneducated people, maybe some people who had mental issues, and it was a small portion of the population. But the people at the center of this now could be sitting at this table, literally. One of us could be addicted, and you wouldn’t even know it.”

The open forum was held at the Center for Jewish Life, because Rabbi Lerman said he believes the key to fighting the opioid epidemic is awareness and education. He said he hoped the forum could help educate the public about the issue and prevent it from expanding any further.

“He who saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world,” Rabbi Lerman said, referring to a quote from the Talmud. “The potential of even one individual is limitless, and the value of one life is priceless. We all know that the opioid crisis is really an epidemic, and if we could just save one life by talking about it, we saved an entire world.”

Dorothy Mai, a student at Stony Brook University, is an intern participating in the East End News Project’s series on opioids on the East End.

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