The special guest for the evening, Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini, had already given his speech and gone. A handful of other members of the public had already offered their own comments when a familiar face stepped up to the microphone.
“Good evening. I’m Brad Bender and I’m a grateful, recovering addict,” said the former Southampton Town councilman who spent nearly a year in prison after pleading guilty in late 2015 to illegally selling the painkiller oxycodone.
Mr. Bender, who said he was the victim of “medically induced opioid addiction,” recounted that once he disappeared from the public eye, he was abandoned by his old friends. “The only people who came to me were the people in the basement of a church,” he said.
The former councilman made his comments at “It Hits Home,” a public forum on the opioid crisis sponsored by Southampton Town at Southampton High School last Wednesday night. An opioid addiction task force convened last year is expected to offer its recommendations to the town board in the coming months for combating the problem.
Mr. Bender offered his own suggestion for one way to address addiction: lend a hand to those in need of help. “How often are we going to turn our backs on our sick and dying?” he asked after the crowd of about 120 people had already begun to thin out. “Why do you shut the door on the people you love? Why do you close people out of your lives because they have an addiction or a problem?”
Mr. Bender said he was victimized by an unscrupulous doctor who manipulated his addiction and convinced him to sell his medications to a third party, who, in turn, distributed them to others. He spent 11 months in a residential facility, three months in a halfway house and two months on house arrest. “That was my very first run-in with the law ever,” he said.
Mr. Sini, a former Suffolk County police commissioner and federal prosecutor who was elected district attorney last fall, conceded that “we are not going to arrest our way out of this epidemic” and insisted that addiction is a disease that must be treated, not punished.
Selling drugs is another matter. “We are not going to tolerate drug dealing in our community,” Mr. Sini said. “We are not going to let drug dealers peddle poison on our streets.”
The county recently convicted two men of manslaughter for being responsible for the fatal overdoses of others. They were the first two such convictions, Mr. Sini said. “It shouldn’t be so difficult to hold people accountable for killing people,” he said. “If you make the decision to sell poison and you kill someone, you should be charged with murder. It’s that simple.”
The district attorney said the county has worked with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and other law enforcement agencies to step up the fight against illegal drugs, adding there is a “full-blown fentanyl epidemic” on the streets today. The synthetic opioid is cheap and incredibly powerful, often leading to overdoses.
Mr. Sini said the authorities are investigating every overdose as if it were a crime and added that there were more than 800 reported saves using the opioid antidote Narcan in the county last year.
But he said individual drug addicts need to be treated for their disease, with arrests seen “as an opportunity for intervention.” County police are now referring those arrested to treatment centers and 10 percent of them have accepted the offer, which Mr. Sini said was statistically a high percentage.
The county is also encouraging more people to go through drug court programs. “If you go into treatment and you meaningfully engage in it, that case will be dismissed,” he said.
The audience also heard from John Venza, the vice president for adolescent and residential services for Outreach Development Corporations, who lost his 21-year-old son to an overdose in November 2016.
Mr. Venza said he struggled with the idea that he, a treatment professional, could have lost his own son to a disease he understood so well, but he said he had since come to grips with it. “Oncologists lose children to cancer, cardiologists lose children to heart disease,” he said.
“Despite all the love, all the information, all the education,” he added, “these are nothing but young kids who made a bad choice.”
He noted that his son had been an active student and an excellent athlete, but he had walked away from sports and the mentors who had guided him after an unrelated illness sidelined him from sports when he was a junior in high school.
Mr. Venza said he had been issuing the alarm about heroin for nearly 20 years, as he watched its use spread to the suburbs along with the rise of opioid-based pain relievers. He cited his concern that youths were being attracted to heroin and other opioids through their use of other drugs, including marijuana.
Pam Stark, a retired Nassau County detective, also spoke, urging stepped up drug prevention education and self-esteem programs to steer kids away from drugs, saying that it is important that teenagers learn coping skills before it is too late.
Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki said often police are called to the same location to deal with overdoses. “In this quarter alone, we had one individual who was Narcan-revived four times,” the chief said. “It’s not enough for us to keep saving people. We want to get help for them.”
As a result, he said, detectives are visiting people who have been revived with Narcan and asking them if they can share their information with the opioid task force’s treatment subcommittee.
Several other speakers came forward from the audience to offer their stories of overcoming addiction to complaints that the town does not do enough to help teenagers or members of the minority communities.
Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who co-chairs the task force with former News 12 anchorman Drew Scott, who lost his granddaughter to a drug overdose, said he was hopeful that the light being shown on the opioid problem was having an effect. He said the town had experienced only one fatal overdose during the first quarter of the year, down from seven during the same period a year ago.
The task force’s next public event will be a candlelight vigil to remember those who have died from overdoses at Good Friend Park in Hampton Bays on the evening of May 12.