The Criminal Justice Approach to Opiate Abuse is Failing in New York

The Criminal Justice Approach to Opiate Abuse is Failing in New York

Written by SUNY Albany Graduate School SSDP chapter leader Lauren Parasconda.

The Opiate Epidemic in the United States has expanded into many cities, towns, and states across the U.S at an alarming rate over the last few years. In New York City alone, Staten Island is currently leading the way in the number of opiate/heroin-related deaths amongst the other 4 boroughs. From the years 2000-2011, the rate of unintentional deaths involving opiates increased 435%, according to the Center for Disease Control. This isn’t just a “junkie problem” but a problem that affects everyone’s family, friends, neighbors, and homes. The opiate epidemic we are currently facing has brought to light that overdose does not only affect individuals from impoverished communities but anyone who’s vulnerable to the negative consequences of addiction. What used to be considered a problem in only the big cities is now a problem in suburbs and rural areas as well.

Prescription pills such as OxyContin and Percocet were more readily available until a few years ago when the state of New York made it harder for addicts to get drugs by “doctor shopping”. In 2013 the Department of Health implemented a new program called I-STOP (Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing – Prescription Monitoring System). For example, the I-STOP program eliminated patients who are prescribed the medication Suboxone, a narcotic to treat addiction, from receiving paper prescriptions. Now their prescriptions are sent directly through the I-STOP program in order for the state to have more control over knowing who is being prescribed such controlled substances. This system provides practitioners with information on their patients’ controlled substance history. The introduction of the I-STOP program let to an increase in the use of heroin, after it becoming harder to find on the streets due to more regulation from the state. The scarce availability of pills on the street led to the black market price increasing. Users were then left with a choice, for whether they wanted to spend $30 on 1 pill or get a few bags of heroin for the same price. The psychoactive effects of pills and heroin are pretty much the same as well as their potential for abuse.

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Overdose Prevention kits that contain life-saving tools like naloxone are a great example of something the state of New York can invest in to combat rising levels of opiate abuse.

After New York State created I-STOP, heroin started to take over the streets. The heroin we are seeing today more often than not contains Fentanyl. Fentanyl is 50x more potent than heroin. So far in 2016, there have been approximately 48 opiate overdose deaths, while another 16 lives have been saved by the overdose antidote called Narcan.

Staten Island District Attorney, Michael McMahon says there are currently not enough resources to fight against this disheartening overdose trend. He has proposed a new program that would require addicts to go to treatment after their first drug arrest. Mayor DeBlasio still hasn’t responded to McMahon’s $1 million requests for the funding needed to start the new program, stating that “this is an emergency” and “we need help now”.

In February, McMahon’s office started treating every overdose like a crime.  By using this approach it allowed him to collect data from cellphones, which would lead to finding the dealers who are selling the lethal batches of heroin. The individuals who are caught selling for profit will still be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for dealing the substance.

If you’re paying attention, it seems like every week you hear about another young person has died due to an overdose. I personally lost three friends the summer of 2016 alone (there have been others), my high school prom date being among them. At this point, it seems apparent that the current drug policies we have in place aren’t working. We are losing too many young adults with a future and so much more to live for. Amidst the crisis we are experiencing as a society, education and awareness are key. Parents and schools need to teach their children the truth about drugs at a young age backed by peer-reviewed research for their education level. When it comes to our loved ones struggling with addiction problems, we need to show them compassion and love. We can’t be in denial of the problems they’re going through. Together we can continue to fight a long hard fight against the opiate epidemic that’s taking, or otherwise be destroying, the lives of our family members and friends.