Opioid Forum at Center for Jewish Life Focuses On Growing Epidemic

Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki spoke about the opioid crisis. Dorothy Mai photo

By Dorothy Mai

When Cindy Goldberg was just a teen, she was prescribed opioids to treat menstrual cramps. It was that easy.

The opioid epidemic is now a national issue and the Town of Southampton is eager to crack down on drug addiction. Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki was joined by Rabbi Berel Lerman and a dozen individuals from the Sag Harbor Jewish community at the Center for Jewish Life – Chabad in Sag Harbor on Thursday, August 2, to urge the public to be part of the solution.

“I was never told I couldn’t drive on it, was never told I couldn’t handle my children,” Ms. Goldberg, who was one of the dozen people at the forum, said. “I clearly felt high. I knew it, but I kept taking it for my cramps. I did what the doctor told me.” It wasn’t until she got into a car accident that she realized how powerful the drug really was.

“Out of my 40 years of practice, I don’t think I saw over one or two overdoses of patients,” said Dr. Steven Goldberg, who is Cindy’s husband and a retired doctor. “Since I’ve been out here, I’ve known three [overdoses] and I’ve only been out here for two years.”

In the past, opioids were extremely accessible through prescribed medication. Addicts would “doctor shop” and complain about pain to numerous doctors to get multiple prescriptions for opioids.

“There are people who go to doctors just for drugs,” Mr. Goldberg said. “Now you can’t. As soon as you prescribe, their whole medical history comes up on the screen.”

A New York State Law rooted off the 2012 Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing (I-STOP) state law was put into place nearly three years ago to prevent addicts from “doctor shopping.” If a doctor prescribes a drug, they are required to put all prescription records into a state database. Failure to do so can result in fines and/or imprisonment.

Chief Skrynecki gave a thorough five-part overview of the opioid and addiction crisis while also answering questions from guests.

“I am a community-police oriented person,” Chief Skrynecki said. “That means I give to the community, but I also hope that the community will give back to me.” He urged guests to receive and share his message to call police if they have any information regarding drug trafficking or drug-related business, giving them the option to remain anonymous. “If we get the information, we can act on it,” he said.

The first part of the chief’s presentation covered the origins of the opioid crisis, the history of the drug and where it came from. An opioid in its natural form comes from the poppy plant, which is farmed primarily in the Middle East, but has made its way to South America. The U.S. has been bombarded with the new crop while also being introduced to synthetic opioids, maximizing the access to the addictive drug.

“I had a surgery just a year ago and I went home with a vial of Oxycontin, and I think it was about 40 pills. I didn’t take one,” Chief Skrynecki said. “Being careful and knowing about the addictions of that, I stayed away from it and I don’t have it now. It stayed in my medicine cabinet for a while, and that’s a problem.”

This was Chief Skrynecki’s second point of the discussion — how opioid addiction became such a big issue. People were finding themselves being over prescribed opioids and were leaving them in their medicine cabinets, which led to exposure to children.

“Young people, for whatever reason, seem to want to explore different mind-altering experiences,” Chief Skrynecki said as guests nodded in agreement. “They started to realize that these pills will give you some type of euphoric feeling, and very foolishly thought, well if it’s a prescribed pill, it can’t be that dangerous.”

According to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, parents did not view prescription drugs as dangerous, and neither did their kids. Most failed to realize how addictive and dangerous the drugs can be, and so their leftover medication was not stored or thrown away properly, which made it easy to fall into the wrong hands. The study calls for parents to be more educated and emphasize the importance of monitoring their prescription drugs.

The final three points of the chief’s presentation covered the topics of awareness, education and enforcement.

“We have to wake people up,” Chief Skrynecki said. “I am surprised at even in the current state of things, there are still people who are living in our communities who don’t want to accept the fact that this could easily happen to you or your family member.”

His goal is to get out into the community and educate people about the seriousness of the crisis.

“We need to get to our kids. We need to make them aware, as well as their parents. We need to educate them as to how to avoid pitfalls,” Chief Skrynecki said. “Education and awareness hopefully leads to prevention.”

A big part of his role in fighting the opioid crisis is enforcement, and that means trying to cut down the supply.

“If there’s no supply, then there’s no people using it,” Chief Skrynecki said. “But we know that you can’t arrest your way out of this. As much as we knock the supply down, it’s unlikely that we’ll eliminate the supply. Even if the drug is taken away, the addiction remains.”

The chief said his department has put efforts into cracking down on wholesalers. But drug trafficking is big business, he said, and if one seller is taken down, another usually replaces them. The police are looking for bigger sellers, but finding and removing those sources has proven to be difficult.

Chief Skrynecki was a part of the Southampton Town Opioid Task Force and works closely with the East End Drug Task Force. He is also a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), which is headed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and makes recommendations to Congress based on their drug trafficking observations. The chief said there have been significant changes in law enforcement over the past few years.

“In my [earlier] police career, we would look at an addict as a criminal,” he said. “We have changed our view of the addict from a criminal to a person with a medical condition that they may or may not want. That doesn’t mean we have shifted out views of the seller.”

In the case of a fatal overdose, sellers can be held responsible and be charged with manslaughter. There have only been a handful of cases tried on Long Island because they are hard cases to prove. Southampton Town Police are currently pursuing someone responsible for a recent overdose in Flanders two weeks ago. No further information was given since it is an active investigation.

Police departments have been holding annual trainings on how to administer Narcan, which is a drug that ultimately reverses the effects of an opioid-based chemical, in the event of an overdose. Chief Skrynecki said his department has been engaged in Narcan saves almost on a weekly basis, if not daily at times. However, he happily reported that Narcan saves have decreased, meaning there have been less reports of overdoses, and the fatality rate from overdoses have decreased significantly compared to last year. In 2016, there were five opioid-related deaths in Southampton Town and in 2017 there were 19. As of August 2018, there have only been three deaths. At this time last year, there were 13.

“We had three too many, obviously, but three compared to 13 is a very significant improvement,” Chief Skrynecki said.

Gregg Solomon, a member of the Jewish Center, asked if there were any specific demographics or communities that attracted this addiction.

“Addicts have been around for a long, long time. If you look back in the 70s, 60s, 50s, there were heroin addicts,” Mr. Skrynecki said. “They were generally uneducated people, maybe some people who had mental issues and it was a small portion of the population. But the people at the center of this table [of addiction] now, could be sitting at this table, literally. One of us could be addicted and you wouldn’t even know it.”

The open forum was held at the Center for Jewish Life because Rabbi Lerman believes the key to fighting the opioid epidemic is awareness and education. He said he hoped the forum could help educate the public about the issue and prevent it from expanding any further.

“He who saves a life, is as if he saved an entire world,” Rabbi Lerman said, referring to a famous quote from the Talmud, a Jewish law. “The potential of even one individual is limitless and the value of one life is priceless. We all know that the opioid crisis is really an epidemic and if we could just save one life by talking about it, we saved an entire world.”