Pubdate: Thu, 19 Jan 2017
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The Buffalo News


Nineteen suspected opiate deaths in the first 19 days of January have Erie
County on pace for 365 deaths in 2017.

It could be worse. Last year started more deadly.

During the early weeks and months of 2016, the epidemic was claiming so
many lives that county officials projected more than 500 people would die
that year. The pace, however, slowed as the county took aggressive steps,
including promotion of the widespread use of the opiate antidote Naloxone.

By year's end, 247 people had died in confirmed overdoses, with 77 more
suspected deaths, officials said Thursday.

"In the first quarter of 2016, we were trending toward more than 500
deaths for the year. Even if we have 365 deaths this year, it is much
better than last year," Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said

Poloncarz joined District Attorney John J. Flynn at a news conference to
announce the re-establishment of a stand-alone narcotics bureau with three
full-time prosecutors.

Over the first three months of 2016, there were 107 deaths. Twenty-nine of
them occurred in January, compared to the 19 so far this month.

Flynn called aggressive prosecutions of opiate dealers one way to save lives.

"We can help disrupt the supply of this poison that is killing people at
an alarming rate," Flynn said, adding that those suffering from opiate
addiction who commit non-violent crimes such as petty larceny will receive
treatment rather than a prison sentence.

Flynn said he also intends to avoid repeating the mistakes made during the
crack epidemic in the late 1980s, when the black community was penalized.

"The way the crack epidemic was handled, it unfairly impacted the
African-American community. The response was to throw everyone in jail,
but those who are addicted need treatment instead of jail," he said.

Unlike the crack epidemic, most of the people addicted to opioids are
white, according to health officials.

While Flynn plans to show compassion toward these substance abusers, he
says he will not be lenient on heroin dealers.

"They are preying upon an ever-expanding population of those who become
addicted to opiates," he said, pointing out that many of these individuals
start out with legal prescriptions to the highly addictive painkillers.

County officials say this approach will give prosecutors more time to
focus on the real villains, drug dealers, whom Poloncarz described as
parasitic entrepreneurs. Their fentanyl-laced heroin figured into as many
as 75 percent of last year's overdose deaths.

A powerful opioid usually prescribed to cancer patients, several grains of
fentanyl can cause death.

"Make no mistake, this is a business model and we are going to destroy
it," the county executive said in thanking Flynn for making the
prosecutions a priority.

Citing President Franklin D. Roosevelt's strategy of implementing a number
of actions to end the Great Depression, Poloncarz said multiple measures
are needed to see what works in order to stop the epidemic from becoming
an out-of-control pandemic.

To that end, County Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein, who also
attended the news conference, said there will be increased training in
administering of the opioid antidote Naloxone this year and efforts to
bring about improved education in schools.

"Our community education work group is conducting a needs assessment of
area schools," Burstein said of the Erie County Opiate Task Force's
subcommittee. "There really are good evidence-based curriculums out there,
but we have to know what the schools are teaching so we can deliver a
consistent message for drug prevention."

She cited training of medical students at the University of Buffalo,
improving links between health care professionals with chemical dependence
clinics and continuing peer support for individuals who arrive at local
emergency rooms seeking help for opiate misuse as among the efforts
receiving additional attention this year.

There is also a volunteer Angels Program in place where individuals will
go to participating police department stations when substance abusers
arrive requesting treatment. The angels will stay with the person until
they are placed in treatment. The county last year also established a
24-hour, seven-day-a-week Crisis Services addiction hotline, 831-7007,
providing over-the-phone assessments and linkage to treatment services.

Flynn said Paul J. Williams III, a 21-year member of the District
Attorney's Office, will serve as the narcotics bureau chief, while
assistant district attorneys John P. Gerken Jr. and Lauren Nash will staff

Note: The 2016 statistics do not include the 77 suspected opiate overdose
deaths from last year. Toxicology results are pending in those deaths.
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