That the nationwide opioid crisis is directly impacting New Paltz is no longer in doubt, and at their joint meeting on March 14 town and village officials heard more about what’s being done about it. Town Police Chief Joseph Snyder, Youth Center Director Jim Tinger, and town Community Education Coordinator Phoenix Kawamoto briefed them on their efforts.
Kawamoto serves as a coordinator among various agencies, as she did when she was executive director of the Greater New Paltz Partnership, and both Tinger and Snyder praised those efforts. She explained that her focus is on universal prevention, and targeting people just beginning to use opioids for intervention and treatment.
One aspect of prevention which is largely deemed a success is medication drop boxes, such as the one in the lobby of the town police station and a similar one on campus, where anyone can bring unused medication for disposal. According to Snyder, it’s not even necessary to speak with the dispatcher to utilize this service, and his detectives have to regularly empty it out. Medications, including opioids, cannot be safely disposed of by flushing down a toilet; these substances do not get removed by ordinary water treatment methods and have been found in many aquatic species. What’s placed in the drop box is incinerated, plastic prescription bottles and all.
In addition to providing such training, Snyder stressed the existence of the Good Samaritan law, intended to encourage people to seek treatment when they witness an overdose, rather than taking time to hide evidence of drug use. Relatively minor infractions will not be prosecuted under those circumstances.
Providing information about addiction is critical, Kawamoto explained, and efforts are being made to make it as easy as possible for a concerned family member or friend to learn all they can. That includes self-directed online courses and video tutorials around identifying issues early. Making information available online fits into varied schedules and avoids issues of stigma, she said.
Tinger agreed that many parents in particular prefer to be able to learn about these topics in private, rather than attending a forum. He also said that the focus of the town’s youth program has shifted in the more than 25 years he’s been there; combating isolation and overuse of electronic devices is now a priority. “We talk about screens all the time,” he said, and generally provide a forum for “open conversations” with young people who often “don’t want to talk easily.”
Those conversations around substances are needed earlier and earlier, Tinger said. Once they were only necessary for high school students, but now children as young as 11 and 12 are curious. “We encourage conversations with adults, not just other kids,” he said.
At the other end of the addiction spectrum, efforts to save lives include the increasing availability of naloxone, the drug that stops an overdose by forcibly removing the drug from its receptors in the body. Training is necessary to use this drug, but Kawamoto coordinates these for groups of all sizes. Funding for the drug and training is available because Ulster County has been identified as an area of particular concern.
Connected to the opioid crisis are standards for prescribing these powerful painkillers. Doctors were first asked to treat pain more aggressively in the ’90s, and it wasn’t clear back then just how addictive this class of drugs would prove to be. Kawamoto said that 75% of abusers started with a prescription, and now these drugs are being monitored much more closely. Nevertheless, lawmakers expressed concern that some area doctors and dentists write prescriptions for a month’s worth of these pills when only a few might be needed.
Eve Waltermaurer, an epidemiologist with the Institute for Family Health, confirmed that over-prescribing of these drugs is an issue that doctors she works with seek to address; not only can a large supply lead to misuse by the patient, it also creates a point of access for others. State standards now limit these prescriptions to a seven-day supply, she said, while the national standard caps it at three days’ worth for acute pain. “The doctors I know are very aware of the role prescribing has” in creating addiction, she said, and prefer to seek complementary or alternative treatment instead.
Kawamoto said that she is able to help patients advocate for other forms of treatment if they have doctors who are recommending opioids.
Waltermaurer was also the primary author of “The Marijuana Gateway Fallacy,” a Benjamin Center report in which she discusses the reduced rate of opioid addiction in states where cannabis is now legal for pain management.
Lawmakers at the Wednesday meeting acknowledged that the opioid crisis touches a great many people. Deputy Supervisor Dan Torres spoke about the half dozen or more of his high school classmates who have struggled directly with these drugs, and deputy mayor KT Tobin said that her children and their peers have “experienced a lot of loss” due to opioids. Two cases of suicide by high school students in recent years were linked to this class of drugs.
Turning the conversation back to manufacturers, Torres noted that the evidence is mounting that drug-makers were aware of the dangers and downplayed them. He said that New Paltz alone is too small to sue for damages, but perhaps in concert with other municipalities they could seek redress for expenses related to the opioid crisis, which might include Kawamoto’s salary among other costs to the community.
Mayor Tim Rogers suggested another way to influence the situation would be to ask the state comptroller to use the might of the state pension fund to put pressure on these companies. ++