Opioid epidemic discussed in Saranac Lake

Jason, a recovering addict, speaks at a forum on opioid drugs Wednesday at the Saranac Lake Free Library’s Cantwell Community Room. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

SARANAC LAKE — A community forum held Wednesday night at the library about the opioid epidemic carried the message that Saranac Lake is not immune from the spread of heroin and prescription opiate use causing tens of thousands of deaths across the nation.

About 60 members of the public showed up for the forum, not including the 12 or so presenters. It took more than an hour-and-a-half to get to audience questions after the presenters spoke, but the discussion that followed was lively.

The forum was moderated by Franklin County Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill. “It’s time for us to put out heads together as a community and come up with some solutions.”

Mulverhill said one third of the people coming into the Franklin County jail are addicts.

“Families try to solve the problem on their own,” said Mulverhill. “They’ve got a son or a daughter, a mother or father, emptying out the bank account or going to visit their grandmother and taking her checkbook.”

Incarceration, according to Mulverhill and other forum presenters, can be a gateway into treatment. Mulverhill said inmates are assessed and given options for treatment. “Sometimes the criminal justice system is our only resort.”

District Attorney Craig Carriero and Brooke Clark, the ECHO coordinator for Franklin County, urged parents to “be helicopter parents” and reminded people that parental influence makes a difference in how and when teenagers get into drugs. However, later speakers had a different perspective. “Jason,” who spoke as an addict in recovery, said his parents were extremely attentive, good parents.

Coming after the other panel speakers, who were all professionals involved through their jobs — the sheriff, the DA, or social services — Jason gave a moving first-hand account of his life as a heroin addict.

He grew up in a loving family and got good grades, but he was socially awkward and he wanted to make friends. “I wanted that badly and didn’t know how to do that,” he said. “I found early on if I had cigarettes, if I had weed or alcohol, people would hang out with me.

“Three weeks into my senior year in high school I accidentally took too many pills and didn’t wake up,” he said. However, even when he was facing a seven-year jail sentence some years later, Jason still wasn’t ready to stop using. He said his mother repeatedly begged him and he finally tried drug treatment court because he couldn’t stand to see her cry.

One audience member asked Jason if he was able to get drugs in jail. He said he detoxed in jail several times, but also was able to get drugs there from time to time.

Jason credited Judge Ryan of Clinton County Drug Court as “the first person outside my immediate family who cared what was happening to me.”

During the question and answer session, members of the community offered their perspective on the opioid epidemic.

Heather Damour, a pharmacist at the Rite Aid-Walgreens store in Saranac Lake, said she has access to customers’ prescription histories from all over the U.S., which has helped avoid overprescribing. But she sees signs that this has driven addicts from pills to heroin.

“I sell between 50 and 60 syringes a day here, so it is a problem,” she said.

She said she has seen syringe buyers get progressively younger, down to the minimum legal age of 18 to buy them.

“Where is your life going to go if you’re 18 years old and buying syringes?” she asked. “I have moms buying formula and syringes.”

She also said the discarded needles show up everywhere — she has found them in parks and her own drug store’s bathroom — so she wants to see more sharps disposal containers in public places. For now, she advises people to go all the way to the hospital to discard needles.

This prompted two presenters to promote a needle exchange program the Albany-based Alliance for Positive Health conducts in Plattsburgh and could potentially bring to Franklin and Essex counties. These officials countered claims that such programs enable addicts, saying they put drug users in regular contact with professionals who can help them get treatment when they’re ready to accept it.

Saranac Lake village Trustee Rich Shapiro asked about the addiction situation for veterans compared to other people. Jordanna Mallach, a combat veteran who works in veterans services for the National Guard, answered that the military’s Tricare health care program will pay for a lot of opioid painkillers but not alternate pain-treatment means such as massage, acupuncture or chiropractors.

Zach Randolph, head of the veterans program at St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers in Saranac Lake, said the addiction problem is worse for veterans because the military’s “antiquated” health system “hasn’t woken up to it.” Whereas a civilian can never buy more than a 30-day supply of opioid painkillers at a pharmacy, Randolph said veterans get tubs of pills, a 90-day supply, mailed to their homes.

“It’s available en masse,” he said.

John O’Neill asked what Saranac Lakers can do about the epidemic. Randolph noted how Jason had said he started drinking and smoking in order to make friends. Randolph said addicts often start using drugs as a substitute for human connections, and local people can counter this by maintaining contact with and support for people around them, especially those who may be using drugs.

In response to a question from the Enterprise, village police Chief Charles Potthast and Franklin County Department of Social Services Commissioner Michele Mulverhill said they have not seen any cases of opioid drugs in Saranac Lake schools or colleges.

COMMENTS