Bay Ridge

How Southwest Brooklyn is combating the opioid epidemic

February 21, 2018 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Many addicts start off by taking legal prescription pain killers but wind up moving to heroin when they can no longer get the pills, according to law enforcement experts. Eagle photo by Paula Katinas

As the nation’s opioid epidemic deepens, Southwest Brooklyn’s elected officials and civic leaders are grappling with the health crisis by coming up with ideas on how to confront the growing problem.

In Bay Ridge, which has a drug treatment program that was started by Community Board 10 member Donna Mae DePola in 2014, opioids are a big topic of discussion, especially in political circles.

State Sen. Marty Golden (R-C-Bay Ridge-Southwest Brooklyn), lawyer Andrew Gounardes and journalist Ross Barkan have all spoken out in recent weeks on the issue. Gounardes and Barkan are facing each other in a Democratic primary for the right to run against Golden in November. 

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Golden said he is working on the drug problem on several levels, including funding for programs that help people with substance abuse issues. 

He recently announced that legislation he introduced to reinvest funds into community based programs was approved by the Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities and will head to the full senate for a vote.  

“This legislation would create a chemical dependence reinvestment fund through the Office of State Alcoholism and Substance Abuse (OASAS) and make this additional funding available in the face of the drug crisis. With additional resources, we can save lives and more individuals and families can be helped,” Golden said in a statement.

Golden is a member of the Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction. The task force held a hearing in Dyker Heights in 2016 where medical experts and law enforcement officials testified about the state’s drug problem. 

Heroin is becoming popular at an alarming rate, according to Bridget G. Brennan, New York City’s special narcotics prosecutor, who testified at the hearing.

Many heroin addicts start off by taking prescription painkillers and turn to heroin when they can no longer get their hands on pain killers, she testified. “For the new addict, the gateway is pills,” Brennan said. “Heroin is cheaper and it’s built to get high.”

William Fusco, executive director of the drug treatment program Dynamic Youth Community, has endorsed Golden’s bill. “Quality treatment saves lives,” he said. 

Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Sheepshead Bay) is sponsoring the bill in the Assembly. 

Gounardes, who serves as chief counsel to Borough President Eric Adams, responded to a request from the Brooklyn Eagle for his plan on combating opioids and heroin with a detailed list of steps.

“To break the cycle of addiction and death that are decimating communities across the country, we need to adopt a multipronged strategy that includes increased funding for medical-based treatment centers, comprehensive wrap-around services for patients receiving treatment, expanded distribution of NARCAN, more comprehensive education for students on the dangers of drugs and harsher criminal penalties for the distribution of opioids,” he wrote in an email.  

But treating the drug problem by itself is not enough, according to Gounardes.

“Research shows that many people who suffer from opioid addiction had other underlying issues, whether physical, emotional, or psychological, that helped fuel their addiction. By providing comprehensive wrap-around services for patients e.g., medical doctor, therapist, social worker, job training opportunities, etc., we can more treat the whole person and make sure that their likelihood for relapse is minimized because their life is back on track,” he said. 

Gounardes also called for increased education efforts to warn young people about the dangers of drugs and for tougher penalties on drug dealers.

Barkan, who writes for the Village Voice, The Guardian and other publications, presented a platform that centers on holding pharmaceutical firms accountable for the pushing doctors to prescribe opioids, securing more funding for community-based treatment centers and working to pass legislation to provide universal health insurance coverage.

Barkan called for increased funding for drug treatment programs that use medications to help patients. “It is time for the state to dedicate more funding to medication-assisted treatment, which utilizes medication to help fight addiction and withdrawal symptoms while also providing psychological counseling, support networks and patient monitoring,” Barkan said.

Another pillar of Barkan’s platform involves pushing health insurance companies to expand the types of treatments covered. “The opioid crisis has reached its current levels in part because these drugs are prescribed too often by doctors who often have few other options due to the excessive cost of other pain management methods,” he wrote. 

Barkan also said the state should be putting more weight behind programs that divert low level drug offenders away from the criminal justice system and into treatment centers. 

Meanwhile, the dangers of opioid and heroin use are becoming more prevalent, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

On its website, HHS lists shocking statistics. In 2016, 42,249 people in the U.S. died from opioid related overdoses and 15,469 people died from heroin overdoses. That same year, 11.5 million people misused prescription opioids, according to HHS.

DePola, who founded the Resource Training and Counseling Center in Sunset Park 24 years ago, opened a satellite center in Bay Ridge in 2014.

Sources told the  Eagle that civic and religious leaders in the Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights area asked DePola to set up shop in their neighborhood to help stem the tide of drug use among young people. Leaders were impressed by DePola’s track record in Sunset Park, sources said.

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