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Editorial: The deadly grip of opioids is defying wide-ranging efforts to fight addiction

Opiates continue to kill at an alarming rate.

As of Wednesday, Erie County reported 33 suspected overdose deaths this month, including six last weekend alone. That staggering toll is on a pace to far exceed the number last year.

Counting the number of deaths from opioid abuse has become a disturbing and necessary procedure performed by health officials, law enforcement, elected leaders and stakeholders here and across the nation.

If there’s any sign of hope in this epidemic, it is the determination by people in power to do all they can to put an end to this needless destruction of lives. The victims are the people, often young, who get hooked on painkillers, and then turn to cheaper heroin when they run out of money. The victims are also families torn apart by their loved ones’ addiction.

But many communities are fighting back, and Erie County is one example.

A year ago, county officials projected that more than 500 people would die of overdoses during 2016. But the pace slowed, and the year ended with 247 confirmed overdose deaths and 77 more suspected deaths.

The decrease was almost certainly because of actions by county officials to get in front of the problem as much as possible. The effort included training thousands of Erie County first responders and family members of addicts in the use of the opiate antidote naloxone, also known as Narcan.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and District Attorney John J. Flynn held a news conference recently to outline the law enforcement response, including the re-establishment of a stand-alone narcotics bureau with three full-time prosecutors.

Flynn said his department does not intend to prosecute those suffering from opioid addiction who commit nonviolent crimes such as petty larceny. They will receive treatment instead of prison. Instead, Flynn vows to aggressively prosecute opiate dealers.

The district attorney stated his desire not to repeat the mistakes of the 1980s, when the crack epidemic greatly affected the African-American community. Back then, users were often jailed rather than offered treatment.

Flynn is taking the right approach when it comes to victims who do not commit serious crimes while focusing on the “real villains,” drug dealers. Poloncarz properly called them “parasitic entrepreneurs” whose fentanyl-laced heroin contributed to as many as 75 percent of last year’s overdose deaths.

As Poloncarz said, stopping this epidemic requires the multiple avenues the county is pursuing. In addition to Narcan training there is increased education in schools on the dangers of addiction.
Erie County launched its Opiate Epidemic Task Force, and Crisis Services began a 24-hour hotline – 831-7007 – for addicts and family members needing help.

It’s important to share information on what is working, and the county’s efforts have become a model for other parts of the state, according to Dr. Gale Burstein, county health commissioner. Officials have traveled to the Hudson Valley, New York City and Long Island to brief their counterparts and also collect information on what they are doing right.

These efforts and much more will be needed if we are to get this tragic epidemic under some control.

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