There was only one opioid overdose in Southampton Town in the first quarter of 2018, down from seven in the first quarter of 2017, but the town’s Opioid Addiction Task Force knows there’s still much more to do to keep the community safe from this national scourge.
Stories of death and addiction consumed the second of two opioid crisis forums organized by Southampton Town Wednesday evening at Southampton High School. While several hundred people attended the first forum in Hampton Bays in November 2017, the crowd of about 100 on Wednesday appeared small in the school’s cavernous auditorium.
Many people shared personal stories of addiction and recovery, including former Southampton Town Councilman Brad Bender, who has just returned from a federal prison sentence for conspiracy to illegally distribute pain pills.
Mr. Bender, who had been sentenced to two years in federal prison in Lewisburg, Penn., served 10 months in prison, three months in a halfway house and two months in home detention, he told the crowd and members of the task force.
“The only people who came to me were the people in the basement of the church,” he said, referring to members of twelve-step programs. “We need to talk to people and find out what the hell is going on…. Why do you chose to close people out of your lives because they have addiction?”
Mr. Bender said he became addicted to pain medication after rotator cuff surgery, and he shared his medicine with a third party.
He had pleaded guilty to conspiring to illegally distribute oxycodone in November 2015, after allegedly filling phony prescriptions from a Riverhead physician assistant for the prior three years.
“I can wear that on my sleeve now, because this is the truth. I don’t have to run and hide from myself,” he said.
Mr. Bender said that, prior to being arrested for the drug charges, his record showed just one seat belt violation. He said the halfway house he was assigned to after leaving prison was across the street from the Farragut Houses apartment project in Brooklyn, which he said was an easy place for people to buy drugs.
“I’d rather have been at Seafield. I probably would have gotten the same treatment and it would have cost me a lot less,” he said.
The conversation included a presentation by John Venza, the director of the Outreach youth residential addiction treatment center in Brentwood.
Despite a career spent serving youth in recovery, Mr. Venza was unaware that his own son, Garrett, had been using heroin. Garrett died in 2016, at the age of 21, after sniffing fentanyl, a super-potent synthetic form of heroin.
Mr. Venza said suburban opioid addiction has been a problem that has been growing for decades, despite its current status as a national epidemic.
“I was working with these kids in the 1990s. This epidemic had almost a 25-year head start on us,” he said.
Mr. Venza said he spent a lot of time in self-reflection after his son’s death, wondering how his own son could have gotten away with using drugs without him noticing the signs.
He said there are two major thoughts he’s drawn from his experience. First, he said, ‘gateway theory is real,’ especially given the super-potent nature of marijuana on the market now.
“When a kid tells a parent ‘I’m just smoking a little pot, the progression of their addiction is going to be a lot more rapid,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you every kid that smokes pot is going to be a heroin addict, but just about every heroin addict used pot at some period.”
Mr. Venza added that all the skills kids use to hide their drug use from parents are already in place if they’ve become accustomed to smoking pot.
He added that “one of most important proactive factors is a caring-trusting relationship with a healthy adult role model” outside the family.
He said Garrett had such role models growing up, in athletic coaches throughout his life. But when he was diagnosed with a blood clotting disorder in the 11th grade, he never went back to sports.
Instead, he got a part-time job at a fast food restaurant just a half mile from his house. While his parents thought their son was safe at work, saving money to buy a car, Mr. Venza said the manager of the restaurant, a 35-year-old opioid addict, was turning his staff on to drugs.
“How well do you know the managers in fast food restaurants where your kids are working? Have you vetted them out? Have you met them?” he asked. “It was the last place we thought.”
New Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini said there have been 800 people in Suffolk County whose lives were saved by NARCAN, an opioid overdose reversal drug, in the past year. He said the county is working to tie drug overdoses to dealers, allowing them to charge drug dealers with manslaughter if the drugs they sold caused a fatal overdose.
“We had the first conviction for manslaughter for an individual who caused death merely by selling drugs,” he said. “It shouldn’t be so difficult to hold people accountable for killing people.”
Mr. Sini said the Suffolk County Police Department is working on outreach to addicts to help get them into treatment. He said 10 percent of people who have been contacted have agreed to go to an inpatient treatment program, and many others have accepted counseling.
“We guarantee a bed to anyone who needs treatment,” he said. “I was shocked at how successful the program was.”
He added that 80 percent of people who are arrested and agree to participate in drug court don’t return to illegal behavior, a much higher percentage than in the traditional court system.
He said many defense attorneys view drug courts as risky for their clients, since charges won’t be dropped unless they successfully complete a drug program, while they could accept a plea deal in a traditional court.
Members of the audience also shared their stories, including 75-year-old Peter Gideon, who said doctors began prescribing him pain medication after surgeries beginning with a torn rotator cuff, followed by a shoulder replacement and spinal stenosis.
“Doctors have a prescription pad in front of them, and if you have chronic pain, they’ll give you anything you need,” he said. “I’m not an addictive personality, but I took them for three years.”
He said he’s happily managed to stop taking pills after learning of safer pain management techniques from a new doctor.
The task force’s next project is a community vigil at Good Ground Park in Hampton Bays on May 12 from 6 to 8 p.m. They’re hoping members of the community come to share stories and poetry about addiction, recovery and about the lives of people who’ve been lost to the disease.
The Southampton Town Police Department will also be holding prescription drug take back events on Saturday, April 28 at the Flanders Community Center, the Hampton Bays Senior Center and the police substation in Bridgehampton Commons.
Mr. Schneiderman said the task force plans to make recommendations to the town board in June.