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Fatalities from opioid epidemic recounted at emotional Erie County budget hearing

To his mother and friends, Nathaniel Smith was brilliant, caring and capable of great kindness. But after struggling with kidney stones, having his gallbladder removed and getting hit by a car in 2011, he slid down the dark road of prescription painkillers.

His mother recounted how she had taken her son for medical treatments back then, encouraged him to take the medication his doctors prescribed, and ultimately found him dead in his bed in September, another opioid overdose victim. He was 26.

“He was home for a week,” said Debra Smith, his mother. “I would have done anything for that child.”

About 60 people came before the Erie County Legislature on Monday night to speak on County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s proposed budget for 2016. But it was a handful of parents, teachers and friends whose emotional pleas attracted the attention and applause of those in Legislature Chambers.

Residents are dying each week of drug overdoses, according to county Health Department data. A small group of parents, teachers and friends highlighted this fact by lighting 180 luminous bags in front of Old County Hall on Monday, roughly the number of opioid overdose deaths cases confirmed by the Health Department so far this year.

What they wanted from the county was multifaceted. Among their priorities: local funding support to combat opioid drug addiction, state lobbying for tougher laws against drug dealers, greater education and outreach regarding drug addiction and prevention, and better assessment tools for health professionals and first responders to help those at risk of becoming addicts and those in danger of repeat overdoses.

Jackie Sullivan, a Town of Hamburg resident, talked about how her son, Stephen, 35, lost his life the same month that Smith died.

Stephen Sullivan had completed an in-patient rehabilitation program and was home for five days when he overdosed and made a frantic call from his truck before losing his life.

South Buffalo resident Mark Levin, 24, described three of his childhood friends to legislators. He described one as clever and ambitious, one bright enough to teach herself Korean, and one ­– Nathaniel Smith – as his brilliant best friend.

All of them suffered overdose deaths within the last year, Levin said.

“This epidemic has leveled families, corrupted neighborhoods and brought the glaring flaws of our system to the forefront of our discussions,” he said.

Poloncarz’s $1.7 billion spending plan is largely status quo, preserving programs and covering some additional hiring and modest increases for nonprofits.

The proposal includes new funding for two sheriff’s’ deputies who will be assigned to help combat the county’s heroin and opioid epidemic.

Legislator Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said she was moved by these residents’ heartfelt pleas and called the problem a “huge concern” that affects many county residents well out of their teenage years.

“I have four kids,” she said. “It’s scary what’s happening.”