Substance Abuse Forum Highlights Growing Problem Among Teens

East Hampton High School Principal Adam Fine makes opening remarks during a Substance Abuse Forum at LTV Studios on Thursday, 3/28/19. Michael Heller photo

Suffolk County had 288 opioid related deaths in 2018, making it the county with the highest incidence of deaths related to prescription and non-prescription overdoses in New York State. An equally frightening statistic for East Hampton Town Police Sgt. Ken Alversa is the reported 794 people brought back to life with Narcan, a brand name for the drug naloxone, which is used by police and emergency service providers — and today the public at large — to prevent death in the case of an opioid overdose.

“That would have been 794 more funerals for husbands, for wives, for sons, daughters, aunts and uncles,” said Sgt. Alversa during the Fourth Annual Substance Abuse Forum at LTV Studios in Wainscott on March 28. “Although we have made leaps and bounds getting those Narcan kits out into the hands of the public — right now there are over 10,000 kits in civilian hands which is why we lead the state in how many people saved — it is scary we have had to save that many people.”

These statistics, or the fact that substance abuse rarely begins for children and teens with opioids but rather with underage alcohol use and other drugs like marijuana, are not lost on Sgt. Alversa or other members of the Adolescent Mental Health and Substance Abuse Task Force. That group formed last year to include East Hampton Village and Town officials, town police, nonprofits including The Retreat, the YMCA, Project MOST and Phoenix House and local school districts including Sag Harbor and East Hampton, where Sgt. Alversa serves as a resource officer for East Hampton High School.

HUGS Executive Director Kym Laube speaking during last week’s forum.

The group sponsored its fourth forum on substance abuse last week featuring Sgt. Alversa and East Hampton High School Principal Adam Fine, who discussed current trends they are seeing in that school district, and a presentation by Kym Laube, the executive director of Human Understanding and Growth Service (HUGS) and the program director for SAFE in Sag Harbor, a coalition of Sag Harbor community leaders that is looking to bring education about substance abuse to the community and create alternative choices in an effort to effect change.

“I want to tell you, as I travel the country, but more importantly as I travel Suffolk County and the East End, it is everywhere and the schools I applaud the most are the ones talking about this and bringing people together so we can begin to change behavior,” said Ms. Laube. “Because it is in every school district and the school districts I find that are getting in front of it are the ones talking honestly and openly about it.”

“We know it is a problem,” said Mr. Fine. “We see it every day and it is not going away, and it is not getting better. Over the past few months at East Hampton High School, we had probably our largest number of vape-related liquid THC suspensions we have ever had … green, leafy marijuana in East Hampton High School is almost a thing of the past now.”

According to data presented by Mr. Fine last Thursday, in 2016-17, East Hampton High School suspended four students for having paraphernalia, one for possession of liquid THC, and four for having traditional green, leafy marijuana. In 2017-18, five students were suspended for paraphernalia, four for liquid THC, and two for traditional marijuana. So far this year, there have been 14 suspensions for paraphernalia, 11 for liquid THC and one for traditional marijuana.

“Just as we saw a transition from kids coming in with alcohol, that transitioned to marijuana and now marijuana has progressed into synthetic marijuana — you can see the difference,” said Mr. Fine.

Sgt. Alversa said even more concerning is that with potentially lethal substances like fentanyl and carfentanil — a tranquilizer for large animals — often found in drugs on the street in New York, students don’t actually know what they are consuming or what has been added to it. He pointed to a case in New Haven, Connecticut, where 76 people overdosed on synthetic marijuana laced with fentanyl.

“The liquid nicotine, the liquid marijuana are so addictive it is hard to get a student off of it,” said Sgt. Alversa. “And some of the students will tell you, ‘I cannot go a day without smoking electronic cigarettes’ or ‘I cannot go a day without smoking marijuana’ … we need to do a better job before it gets to that point.”

The devices to use synthetic marijuana, noted Mr. Fine, are very hard to detect and easy to hide. Sgt. Alversa brought a number of devices, many that look like a USB port, or a pen, or even a set of keys, for parents to inspect. “You have to be on the lookout for anything with a rechargeable port,” he said.

Pills like Xanax have also been found, said Sgt. Alversa, as have pills that were clearly counterfeit and when tested proved to be different substances than advertised by its pill markings. Codeine cough syrup — derived from opioids — mixed with soda like Sprite or Mountain Dew, is also being used, he said, with potentially fatal consequences.

“We are talking about undeveloped brains making bad decisions and it is constant,” said Mr. Fine. “Now take those undeveloped brains and throw substances on top of it.”