At risk of oversimplifying a horrifying national trend, the problem of opioid addiction is something akin to a bicycle inner tube with a bulge in it: Squeeze the tube back into shape and the bulge appears somewhere else. So it has turned out to be with the critical efforts to crack down on the abuse of prescription painkillers.
As New York and other states have made it more difficult for people to abuse prescription painkillers such as Lortab, Percocet and Oxycontin, those who are already addicted are turning to heroin – or what they think is heroin – to feed their craving. It’s cheaper, more readily available and increasingly deadly.
Western New Yorkers got a double dose of the grim reality of heroin addiction on Sunday, first in a troubling story by News reporter Lou Michel and then, in a painful coincidence, in the unexpected death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the country’s most accomplished and promising actors, apparently from a heroin overdose.
It was a shocking loss, but no more so than those suffered by many Western New York families over the past year as the number of deaths from heroin abuse has ballooned. In many of those cases, people addicted to heroin have, likely unknowingly, been using the drug laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opiate used to ease the pain of cancer patients and which, in its pure form, is instantly fatal. Already, speculation is mounting that Hoffman had injected that dangerous concoction.
This is a deadly conundrum. As The Buffalo News reported in the exhaustive 2011 series Rx for Danger, the abuse of painkillers has skyrocketed and has been particularly prevalent in Western New York. In response to the problem, the New York State Legislature passed laws to provide for electronic monitoring of prescription drugs in New York. In addition, the state’s No. 2 prescriber of controlled substances, Dr. Pravinchandra V. Mehta, was arrested on charges of running his Niagara Falls medical office as though he were a drug dealer.
But as prescription painkillers became more difficult to secure, addicts began turning to heroin, which is easy to find and much less expensive. In June, law enforcement officials warned that the heroin-fentanyl combination was showing up in Buffalo. In July, an alleged drug dealer, Peter N. Militello, was charged with causing the death of an addict who bought the deadly mixture from him. The following month, another alleged dealer was arrested for selling what he claimed was heroin but which, in fact, was pure fentanyl, according to the head of the Erie County Sheriff’s Narcotics Bureau.
That’s when a public warning was issued to drug addicts to discard heroin they recently purchased because it could kill them instantly. It remains wise advice – though, given the realities of addiction, an insufficient response.
Some people are trying to make a difference. More than 50 community groups have joined forces in a $1.2 million public awareness campaign that began last fall. Its website, www.painkillerskill.org, is a compendium of information about addiction, treatment and education, with links to other resources.
It’s a welcome effort, but Albany and Washington also need to take note of this deadly trend, as do local governments, schools, churches, parents and siblings.
Addiction cuts across all demographics: rich or poor, city or suburbs, man or woman, boy or girl, famous or not. It has always been with us and, no doubt, always will be. But the double punch of painkiller addiction leading to an injection of poisoned heroin is too terrible to ignore.