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Time for a frontal assault on heroin

It’s like a deadly parlor game, a grim question posed around the lunch table. When did the heroin/opiate epidemic hit home for you?

Was it when a friend’s son or daughter overdosed? Was it the recent local carnage, 23 OD deaths in 11 days? Or did it make your radar screen when a 26-year-old Buffalo cop – a badge doesn’t shield against addiction – was recently saved by Narcan’s “kiss of life”?

Debbie Smith doesn’t care how the opiate emergency busts into anyone’s consciousness. She just hopes it does. That’s why she stood Thursday at a downtown drug treatment center, eyes brimming, holding a picture of her son Nathaniel, dead of a heroin overdose at 26.

She dutifully answered an “all hands on deck” news conference call from Sen. Chuck Schumer, who wants to fast-track $600 million for an anti-heroin assault. Smith knows that the parent-with-pic image has sadly been seen so often, it’s losing the power to move hearts and change minds. But still she showed up, told Nathaniel’s story, in hope that it might touch others: Hooked on prescription drugs after a car crash, then – like so many – on to heroin after cops squeezed the pill market.

Each telling revives her pain, unearths her grief. It is worth it, if it saves even one other mother’s child.

“There are many families right now living in fear for a loved one,” said Smith, whose dark, wet eyes were an open wound. “The only thing worse is when that fear is replaced by grief.”

Attracting attention, enlisting converts is what the anti-opioid battle is about. Presidents, governors, legislators respond to pressure. Response brings remedies. Lives get saved. Families are healed. It’s too late for Debbie Smith’s child. It may not be too late for yours. Or someone’s you know.

Once an uncommon curiosity, heroin – the one “do not touch” drug of my generation – is now a scourge, blasting its way through demographics across America. The Schumer-pushed $600 million would buy more rehab beds, anti-opiate drugs, recovery programs and providers. Best case, Buffalo gets its $10 million share by summer – if the push survives pushback from Rep. Chris Collins and other House Republicans.

I think Collins & Co. need to wake up and smell the poppies. The $600 million is a mere down payment on an opioid epidemic that nationally claimed more than 26,000 lives in 2014 – and more than 300 locally since then.

“When crack cocaine reared its ugly head, we did nothing as a society until it had its tentacles in,” said Schumer. “It took a decade to get rid of it. We do not want to be in that position again.”

Heroin antidote Narcan brings the overdosed seemingly back from the dead. But it doesn’t help them to keep living. That’s why Smith stood Thursday with other parents who’d lost a child. If there was a medically assisted withdrawal program for her boy, he might still be repairing bicycles, playing guitar and charming folks with puppy-dog eyes. Instead, he was dead days after leaving the hospital last September – mere hours after posting a still-haunting question on Facebook: “How many of my friends have to die, before government figures out it must fund drug rehab programs?”

How many?

The crisis has outrun the cure. We need more rehab beds, more insurance coverage, more nurse practitioners – not just doctors – to prescribe heroin-recovery drugs, more after-crisis help. In a grim irony, health insurers pay for the prescription drugs young addicts overdose on, but often not the rehab beds and medications that could cure them.

Paige Prentice wants President Obama, with an executive order, to instantly put Suboxone (buprenorphine) – the heroin recovery drug – at every addict’s bedside.

“It’s the biggest thing that can be done right now,” the vice president of Horizon Health Services told me. “People wait weeks for this medication. Allow nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants to prescribe it. It reduces heroin death, period.”

The logic is unassailable: If Gov. Andrew Cuomo can lower the speed limit on the Scajaquada Expressway the day after a young boy is run over, Obama with the stroke of a pen can – and should – save countless addicts across America.

The president has in the past opened pipelines for anti-cancer and other disease-fighting drugs. But from what I’m told, there’s little push – yet – in Washington to fast-track the anti-heroin pill. The casualty count isn’t high enough, the collective consciousness not sufficiently raised.

That’s why Debbie Smith carries a picture of her dead-by-overdose son. She revives her pain, unearths her grief, in service to a larger cause. She lost her child. For other mothers, it’s not too late.