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New York State task force on opioid crisis gets input from public in Erie County

Politicians called it a crisis.

Parents spoke of children who have suffered.

Medical experts shared their ideas.

All told, a forum held Thursday at Medaille College in Buffalo on the crisis of heroin and opioid abuse in the region and elsewhere included the views of many who approached the situation from a variety of perspectives and experiences.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said the county is facing a crisis in public health.

Poloncarz captured the moment with a historical reference.

“This is kind of like what FDR walked into, to deal with the Great Depression,” Poloncarz said of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The 50 to 100 people in attendance at the event at Medaille during the late afternoon formed a quiet audience to the remarks and testimony of those who participated.

The program was in connection with a new state task force formed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo earlier this month to look into the issue of heroin and opioid addiction and find ways to handle the problem across the state.

At the event, people talked about understanding the true nature of the problem.

“Addiction is a disease,” Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, told the gathering.

She said she will keep in mind the information and messages being aired during the event.

“It’s a discussion that we can’t talk about enough, until we find a solution,” Peoples-Stokes said.

A panel listening to the ideas and testimony included state officials and others.

Linda J. Finn, a coordinator at Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said she has spoken with young people to get their views on the matter.

“We asked them, ‘What can we do?’ ” Finn said. “It was very loud and clear, from our students.”

Education in health is key, Finn said.

Debra D. Smith, a mother whose son died from an overdose last fall and who now leads a subcomittee of Erie County’s Opiate Epidemic Task Force, said after the event, at which she offered comments, that her 26-year-old son, Nathaniel, was special.

Nathaniel, who went to St. Francis High School and Canisius College for pre-med, and who dealt with health issues including being struck while riding his bike in the city, died unexpectedly on Sept. 15, she said.

“And I miss him every day,” Smith said.

Today, Smith said, the feeling she carries with her is unimaginable.

“I feel severed,” she said. “Severed from my life.”

Poloncarz said the scope of the problem is large.

“This is not an easy task,” he said. “It’s not going to be solved overnight.”

The central messages that Smith, the mother and chairwoman of the group, said she wants people to understand on this crisis include the importance of community.

“We are not alone. We can’t do this alone,” Smith said. “This has to be a community effort.”