County considers suit against abundant pain medication

HUDSON–Various Columbia County individuals and groups are taking action to confront the opioid abuse crisis. Five counties in New York State have sued major opioid manufacturers and “doctors who ran pill mills” and at the Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee meeting Wednesday, April 19 county Public Defender Robert Linville suggested that Columbia County consider doing the same.

At the same meeting Sheriff David Bartlett reported cooperation with the federal DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) in addressing the problem of mixing heroin with the synthetic opioid pain reliever fentanyl, which magnifies both the high from the drug and the death rate. And Carl Quinn of Columbia Pathways to Recovery is developing a helpline and needs volunteers to help.

“While there has been laudable progress,” such as the Board of Supervisors’ recent decision to adopt the Opioid Abuse Response Plan, the lawsuits aim “to cut the head off up front,” Mr. Linville said. Opioid manufacturers, he said, are acting to “extend” their products’ reach by giving doctors rebates for overprescribing pills. In Columbia County, “We are awash in heroin and pills. Our citizens are dying.”

Supervisor William Hughes (D-Hudson 4th Ward), reached by phone April 20, specified that in a three-week period in March, seven people in Columbia and Greene counties died from heroin abuse, five of them within two days.

“How do people get addicted?” asked Mr. Linville at the April 19 meeting. “They get addicted by
overprescribing. I surveyed all my clients in the jail. Eighty-five to ninety percent are addicted.” And a “preponderance” of them started their addiction with “legitimate prescriptions.” Later they went on to rob other people’s pills, he said. One tactic was going into houses for sale, saying they were considering buying them and, while looking at the bathrooms, they took what they wanted from medicine cabinets.

Mr. Linville’s results corroborate Sheriff Bartlett’s observation last November that, “Probably 85% of my jail population is addicted to something,” and many started with prescription pills and switched “to heroin, because it was cheaper.”

Erie County was the first in New York to file the type of negligence suit suggested by Mr. Linville. The supervisors at the April 19 meeting decided to discuss with the Opioid Abuse Subcommittee the possibility of inviting representatives of the law firm that is handling the other counties’ suits to talk to county supervisors here.

Mr. Linville said by phone following the county committee meeting that a prosecutor in Albany with the federal Justice Department had indicated to him that the U.S. Attorney General’s Office was “interested in seeing if there is a jurisdictional basis for a federal investigation into the opioid industries, including manufacturers, wholesalers and doctors who regularly overprescribe opiates.”

At the April 19 meeting Sheriff David Bartlett emphasized the importance of DEA work on fentanyl.

“Fentanyl mixed with heroin is what kills,” he said.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse website, www.drugabuse.gov, says that while fentanyl is among the drugs used for medical conditions like chronic pain, “fentanyl and fentanyl analogs associated with recent overdoses are produced in clandestine laboratories.” The drug is “50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and is now frequently mixed with or substituted for heroin.

“High doses of opioids, especially potent opioids such as fentanyl, can cause breathing to stop completely, which can lead to death,” according to the website, which says, “The high potency of fentanyl greatly increases risk of overdose, especially if a person who uses drugs is unaware that a powder or pill contains fentanyl.”

An additional approach tackling this latest form of substance abuse is a helpline under preparation by Columbia Pathways to Recovery. Mr. Quinn, president of the organization, said in a phone interview April 20 that once the helpline starts operating, those who call it will talk to a person who will determine what service the caller needs and transfer the caller immediately to that service. Mr. Quinn hopes the helpline will operate from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, “But that depends on if we get enough volunteers.”

Columbia Pathways to Recovery, according to Mr. Quinn and the Columbia County Opioid Epidemic Response Plan, is an independent, not for profit, grassroots group, established in 2016. It is “dedicated to decreasing the stigma of substance abuse… and educating the community about available” resources. Although current attention focuses on opioid abuse, it deals, Mr. Quinn said, with “any kind of substance abuse disorder,” including alcoholism.

Mr. Quinn’s inspiration for the helpline came when both the County and the Village of Chatham Police Department asked him to help handle the volume of phone calls they were getting. In setting up the helpline, Mr. Quinn is interacting with the Chatham police so that if a caller to the helpline needs treatment, the person staffing the helpline will transfer the caller to the department’s Chatham Cares4U program after asking the caller a series of questions to help pick the best available treatment facility.

The helpline will start, Mr. Quinn said, when it can train enough volunteers to staff the helpline. Shifts would last four hours and during that time, calls to the helpline will be forwarded to the volunteer, wherever he or she is. Volunteers must be over 18 years old, but no particular educational background is required because Pathways will train them. Of particular interest are people who have undergone recovery from substance abuse or have experience with someone who has. To learn more about volunteering, call 518 755-4320 or 518 966-2775.

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