Talking about drugs
ISLIP TOWN—Last Thursday evening, community leaders, elected officials, residents and drug counseling representatives joined together at the Common Ground in Sayville in commemoration of International Overdose Awareness Day. The gathering – titled the “Fed Up and Maxed Out Rally for a Federal Response to the Opioid Epidemic” – featured impassioned speeches, poetry readings, live music and group prayer with the shared intention of raising awareness to the pain and death caused by the ongoing drug epidemic, while discussing and generating realistic, lasting solutions.
Third District NYS Sen. Tom Croci acknowledged the hardships that suffering addicts and their loved ones face on a daily basis and urged the state Assembly to pass a bill he developed that would administer harsher criminal penalties for anyone selling heroin laced with fentanyl (a powerful opioid behind many OD cases) in New York State.
“If you have someone in your life who’s struggling with addiction or recovery, know that it’s respectable, it’s treatable, and yes – there are some times in the course of that addiction where really good people in the throes of addiction do bad things,” said Croci. “But that’s the disease talking – not them – and we have to have the courage to go after the disease and not the individual.”
Croci also expressed frustration with the fact that although the fentanyl bill has passed for two consecutive years in the Senate, it has failed to gain traction in the Assembly.
“I don’t question anybody’s motives and I know we have good people on both sides, but some things should transcend,” said Croci. “I want the commissioners, prosecutors, and the men and women in blue protecting us every day to have the tools they need on the streets and in the courtrooms to make sure that we can deal with the supply side of this problem.
“So when you hear that you can have an effect by calling your elected officials, by calling the governor’s office, and by calling the people who stand in the way of this – it is absolutely true,” added Croci. “Make sure we’re speaking with the right voice, make sure we’re speaking together, and let your voices be heard.”
Legis. Bill Lindsay III (D-8th District) spoke of how drug addiction can impact the lives of anyone, regardless of background.
“This epidemic knows no boundaries,” said Lindsay. “It doesn’t discriminate based on race or sex or ethnicity or economic status. It hits every single community within our county.”
Lindsay noted that he sadly had to deal with the overdose of a family member, and that the lasting anguish does not simply go away over time.
“Even after that person passes, that pain never goes away,” said Lindsay. “The impact this epidemic has on that entire family is so destructive and so painful, that the pain is still there as fresh as if it just happened yesterday. It’s carried by so many people, and we need to bind together as members of our community to end this epidemic and do all we can to make it happen.”
In addition, Lindsay described the success of a Peer to Peer youth program piloted in the Sachem School District three years ago in which high school students teach substance prevention lessons to their middle school counterparts.
“This [program] needs to be brought to each and every district,” said Lindsay. “The stigma that ‘we don’t have an issue within our school district’ we all know is not true. We need to break down those barriers…and bring this prevention tool into every school district at every grade level for every student to have exposure to try to prevent these addictions before they happen.
“Because we see what happens on the other end once they do become addicted,” continued Lindsay. “The odds are so stacked against them in being able to recover. So we need to do whatever we can to cut off the problem before it gets to that point.”
Meanwhile, 10th District Legis. Tom Cilmi testified to the degree of feedback he has received in his office over the years from families affected by substance issues.
“All of us have a personal vested interest in solving this problem,” said Cilmi. “We know it’s not going to go away completely, but we’re all committed, without regard to party, to reducing the number of parents that come through our doors that have lost a child as a result of addiction.”
Sayville community leader Pamela Raymond spoke for the first time in public about the details of her longtime struggle with heroin addiction – which nearly cost her her life multiple times. Ultimately, she managed to get clean and has been sober for nearly three decades.
“Heroin was the love of my life…and we got a lasting divorce,” said Raymond. “I know if I was doing heroin today, where it’s half as much money and twice as strong, I’d definitely be dead. I pray for everyone who’s lost a child, and I hope we can do more for the kids who haven’t died yet.”
Islip Town Councilwoman Mary Kate Mullen thanked event organizer, Dorothy Johnson, for her efforts to bring everyone together and help others.
“Dorothy turned something so tragic – the death of her son – into something we can all be here and learn from,” said Mullen. “Your vision was to bring everyone together so that we can talk about it, to create this event so that people aren’t ashamed to talk about the overdoses, and to bring awareness to the community.
“This is our first event and I hope we have many more like it,” added Mullen. “Because it starts here…and I feel we need to all take action and be aware.”
Another mother of an OD victim in attendance was Sayville resident Susan Walsh, whose 17-year-old son, Jesse, died of a heroin/fentanyl overdose in 2014.
“My firstborn son died because we have no valid system in place to stop this epidemic,” said Walsh, who noted that there were 60,000 OD deaths in the United States (175 per day) in 2016. “There’s no denying it. This epidemic is growing despite the war on drugs we grew up with.
“It took [Jesse’s death] to make me realize that addiction is a disease – not some sort of weakness that he should be able to get over on his own,” continued Walsh. “Jesse was and always will be amazing, but he had a disease that over 90 percent of people cannot defeat on their own. They need medical and psychological help.”
She added that the U.S. needs to follow the lead of other nations, such as Switzerland and Portugal, by not treating drug abuse as a criminal activity and enacting more proactive approaches to such deep-seated issues.
“We need to treat this disease like we would treat our child if they had cancer or any other life-threatening illnesses,” said Walsh. “It might sound crazy, but we need to legalize drugs. This would put cartels and drug dealers out of business immediately. We need to open injection facilities to keep our children alive while we’re finding a way to help them. It works, would save taxpayers a fortune, and has been done in other countries.
“In all honesty, if I could give my son his drug of choice once every day and have him here with me, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” she added. “Most importantly, we need to act and we need to do something quickly. Too many of our children are dying.”
To seek help with substance abuse, call the 24/7 Suffolk County Substance Abuse Hotline at (631) 979-1700.
To contact the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD) Suffolk County Office, call (631) 979-1700 or visit www.licadd.org.
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