Prescription drug abuse is a deadly epidemic that affects all ages and backgrounds, and it will take a community to stop it.
That was the message Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Canty conveyed on Monday night while speaking with a small group of tribal leaders at the Shinnecock Indian Nation community center, during a presentation on the dangers of what has become a growing problem.
Across the country, more individuals die from overdosing on prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, Percocet and Vicodin than heroin and cocaine combined, he said. A total of 27,000 individuals die each year in the United States due to accidental prescription drug overdose.
“This problem crosses every socioeconomic boundary,” he said. “It is colorblind—it doesn’t care if you’re black or white. It doesn’t care if you’re old or young, rich or poor.”
The problem covers the Eastern District of the U.S. Attorney’s office, which includes Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island, “like a blanket,” he added.
Mr. Canty commended Daniel Collins, chair of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Board of Trustees, for inviting him to speak to the small audience of tribal members who gathered on Monday. “Chairman Collins jumped at the opportunity, so I think that really is indicative of his leadership in allowing us to come in and speak to you about this issue,” he said.
He explained that prescription drug abuse is not a victimless crime. Long Island, along with the rest of the country, has seen an increase in drugstore robberies and murders. Perhaps the most egregious example, Mr. Canty pointed out, was the 2011 murder of four individuals at a Medford pharmacy. David S. Laffer, who admitted to the crime, left the store with thousands of pain pills.
“With this addiction we’re finding individuals who will go to any length possible to get these prescription drugs,” Mr. Canty said, calling the problem a public safety issue.
The U.S. Department of Justice is cracking down on health care providers who have acted irresponsibly by handing out prescriptions for painkillers in exchange for cash without conducting a medical examination, Mr. Canty said. Another problem is addicts who “doctor shop,” or visit multiple doctors within a short time, to receive multiple prescriptions. New York has recently implemented a new system, called the Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing, that was designed to track and end such abuse.
Seeing the increase of those violent incidents, as well as an uptick in the number of individuals who were engaging in the illegal trade of those drugs, Loretta E. Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, took action in 2012 by establishing a joint initiative that brought local, state and federal law enforcement agencies together to combat the problem. The initiative also involves community outreach through such presentations, Mr. Canty said. He encouraged any school, organization or community leader interested in having an official from the U.S. Attorney’s Office give a presentation to contact his office at (718) 254-6089.
“The individuals who come are the solution,” he added. “They’re not the problem.”
One factor that makes prescription drug abuse particularly dangerous is the false notion that those medications are safer because they are prescribed by a doctor, Mr. Canty said. Painkillers do not carry the same stigma as illegal substances, making them more inviting to youth. They are also more accessible as they can often be found in the family medicine cabinet.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Capwell, who joined Mr. Canty during Monday’s presentation, encouraged community members to dispose of their unwanted prescription drugs on Saturday, October 26, when officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will supervise a disposal container between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on the Shinnecock Indian Nation reservation. Similar programs will be offered across Suffolk County on that day.
Mr. Canty also described drug abuse warning signs that community members can look for in their coworkers, friends and family, such as unexplained absences and behavior, secretive conversations, visits from new individuals and the theft of money or pills.
Angela Coard, who serves on the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s Health Committee, said the problem is difficult to ameliorate because it is complex, one with many different causes and requires a comprehensive plan of attack. “It’s nice to have another resource, and we’ll see what we can do in the future,” she said.
Marguerite Smith, who also serves on the Health Committee, said she worries about young people who experiment with drugs for recreational purposes and then become addicts. “Why do they not have a sense of future that you’ve got to protect?” she asked.
Ms. Smith pointed out that the roughly 10 tribe members who attended the presentation have a strong influence over the community, and will act as leaders in sharing Mr. Canty’s messages.
“Although the audience was small, the audience was powerful,” she said.