SARATOGA SPRINGS — According to local police and medical experts who spoke at a recent forum about drug addiction, the only way to reduce or end the opioid addiction epidemic in Saratoga County is for various communities to collaborate and bring their specific skills to the table.
SUNY Empire State College and the Rockefeller Institute of Government presented "Local Solutions in the Opioid Crisis" last Thursday afternoon. Local leaders in law enforcement, health care and education not only answered questions posed by the audience, but also discussed evidence-based community-level solutions to help combat the growing problem.
Renee Rodriguez-Goodemote, medical director of the Saratoga Hospital Community Health Center and Sgt. Tim Sicko of the Saratoga Springs Police Department, were among the panelists.
Rodriguez-Goodemote has worked with Saratoga Hospital medical staff to develop a protocol for safer opiate prescribing, while Sicko has more than 25 years of law enforcement experience, including 20 years with the city police. He has spent most of his career with the department in its Investigation Division, working as an investigator and supervisor in the Criminal and Special Investigations Unit.
Sicko began the panel discussion by outlining how, at the most basic level, the Saratoga Springs Police Department has not only shifted how it responds to both individual drug calls and the addiction crisis in general but also changed how it made arrests.
Two decades ago, Sicko said, there was only one officer in the department who investigated drug crimes. Now there are five, and the department also has formed ongoing partnerships with local and national agencies including the Saratoga County Sheriff's Office, the New York State Police and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
For tackling the pervasive drug issues in the area, Sicko said, the more hands on deck, the better.
"That's a huge, huge benefit for us and the community," he said.
Among the initiatives the city's Police Department has implemented to take some control of the epidemic include its Drug Take Back program. People can either bring their prescription drugs into the department or place them into a drop box the department offers in cooperation with the Prevention Council in Saratoga for proper disposal, no questions asked.
Each month, Sicko said, 40 pounds of prescription medications are collected through those programs. Drop-off opportunities and other initiatives, Sicko said, are just one way that law enforcement agencies are evolving from arresting the problem away to providing viable long-term solutions for the public instead.
Police officers have also been trained to administer Narcan at the scene of drug overdoses, he said, cutting down on the number of deaths that stem from overdose incidents.
"We're here for the long haul," he said.
In her work at the hospital, Rodriguez-Goodemote has seen how different communities, particularly the rural ones, struggle with curbing the opioid epidemic.
Locally, she said, Corinth is a municipality that faces huge hurdles in getting treatment to people who need it, due to the lack of both transportation options to treatment facilities and access to education about addiction. Just communicating about addiction services resources can be difficult because some people simply don't have Internet access or a phone to use.
Those gaps, she said, will be covered only if community stakeholders all come together to discuss viable options.
While care providers at the hospital are actively working to develop new treatment procedures that lessen the reliance on prescribing opioids, more organizations need to get involved.
"Part of what we've heard from patients is that they go into treatment and get discharged, and then go into treatment again, and get discharged again," she said. "It's about looking at all of the groups that can assist."
Sicko detailed an incident early on in his career that he said made him realize the drug crisis would not be solved with incarceration.
As a young police officer, he had an encounter with a teenager who was in high school and was slated to attend college on a Division I sports scholarship while managing a burgeoning drug addiction. Sicko said he had a long discussion with the student and his parents, and left their home feeling confident that the student had been pushed onto the right track.
A few years later, Sicko said, he responded to a burglary call and arrested the same young man, who had lost his scholarship and dropped out of school. Sicko had a long discussion with him again, but ultimately the young man ended up in jail.
The next time Sicko saw him he was dead in a hotel room in Saratoga Springs, with a hypodermic needle still stuck in his arm.
"We as a community need to work together to prevent these types of things," he said. "I'm not sure what the answer is. But one thing I can say is that we can solve this issue if we all work together."