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Foss: More needs to be done to address drug epidemic

Foss: More needs to be done to address drug epidemic

I worry that too little is being done
Foss: More needs to be done to address drug epidemic
An overdose rescue kit.
Photographer: Yana Paskova/The New York Times

A new report from the Rockefeller Institute of Government confirms what has been obvious for awhile: New York is in the midst of a very bad drug epidemic, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Between 2010 and 2015, deaths from drug overdoses and chronic drug abuse increased 71 percent statewide.

The problem was particularly acute in the 17 upstate and suburban counties for which there is complete federal data. In those counties, deaths from overdoses and abuse jumped 84 percent, compared to 45 percent in New York City.

Based on what I've seen, heard and read, I knew New York had a problem with heroin, prescription painkillers and other synthetic drugs.

But I didn't know it was this bad.

The Rockefeller Institute report is useful, because it provides insight into the scope of New York's drug epidemic and gives us a better sense of who has been most affected.

What it doesn't tell us is how to bring an end to a public health crisis that has claimed so many lives.

The report notes that "states, as well as the federal government, have undertaken many initiatives to try to stem the growing tide of drug addiction, including public education campaigns, enhanced electronic drug monitoring programs and new law enforcement efforts."

Whether any of these campaigns have been effective is unclear.

The report's author, Jim Malatras, writes that the Rockefeller Institute will examine how various strategies to combat the opioid epidemic are working, and what other steps might be taken, in future reports.

I look forward to reading those reports.

In the meantime, I worry that too little is being done for people struggling with what is by all accounts a hard addiction to beat.

Health facilities and law enforcement agencies have been overwhelmed by the problem, and far too many people have found it difficult to obtain much-needed treatment.

The recently enacted state budget includes $213 million for prevention, treatment and recovery services, a 13-percent increase from the previous year.

Among other things, the funding will add 8,000 residential treatment beds throughout the state, which is great news, but comes too late for the thousands of people who have died from drug overdoses.

What's most unfortunate about the opioid epidemic is that it's a disaster that might have been prevented, had medical professionals fully grasped the dangers of prescription painkillers and imposed stricter limits when prescribing them.

Once it became clear that these pills were highly addictive, and that they were linked to a nationwide rise in heroin abuse, states should have been quicker to fund treatment programs.

Perhaps it was impossible to foresee that the opioid epidemic would become the country's worst drug crisis ever, but it always feels like we're playing catch up when it comes to addressing the problem. We're always learning about the nature of the problem, but never seem to know enough to get it under control. It's clear that more needs to be done, but we're still trying to figure out which approaches work best.

The Rockefeller Institute report does contain some good news: Fewer people are dying of drug overdoses in New York than in most other states.

But that's cold comfort for the families and friends of the thousands of New Yorkers who have lost their lives to drug addiction.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog can be found here.

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