It is difficult to fully comprehend the opioid epidemic’s effects across New York state. But without the brave service of our law enforcement officials, it’s likely that the impacts of opioid addiction and overdoses would be even more severe. Input from the law enforcement community will be critical to ending this crisis, because we know firsthand what is fueling the growing death toll. Illicit substances, such as heroin and fentanyl, and the criminals who sell them require our immediate attention.
Unfortunately, the Opioid Stewardship Act, the first legislative attempt to combat the epidemic, overlooked law enforcement and first responders’ stances on the significant driver of the state’s opioid addiction and misuse problem, illegal drugs. Instead of targeting the black market, lawmakers chose to place financial burdens on the health care supply chain and chronic-pain patients.
The law appeared to be political in nature, and leaders in Albany didn’t seem serious about reducing the supply of opioid-containing medications. They simply sought to fill budget gaps and point fingers for political gain. However, the law was recently struck down by a federal judge in Manhattan. The court found it to be unconstitutional, but I have another concern: the law’s total failure to address illegal drugs.
I have been a member of the New York State Park Police for almost 35 years. And if this experience has taught me anything, it’s that illegal drugs and the criminal activity that surrounds them pose a substantial threat to all generations of New Yorkers, and that immediate action is necessary. Over the past several years, we’ve seen the number of prescriptions for opioids drop, yet the death toll continues to spiral out of control, and the scourge becomes deadlier by the day. Last year across Long Island, authorities projected more than 600 opioid-related deaths.
The majority of them are directly related to the astounding quantity of illicit fentanyl that is being shipped into the United States from countries like China and Mexico. And unlike legal, government-regulated narcotics, these drugs are unfettered and extremely potent. Even small doses mixed with other substances are deadly.
A law that increases fees on the distribution of legal opioids won’t put an end to these tragic overdoses, nor will it make any progress toward curbing the sale or use of illegal drugs. Criminals simply will not be dissuaded from selling drugs, and addicts won’t stop taking cheap drugs that fulfill their highs because of a government-imposed surcharge. Rooting out the offenders will take a more direct and action-oriented approach — one that only law enforcement officers can effectively carry out.
Of course, disagreements about political solutions are inevitable. But when it comes to the opioid epidemic, it is imperative that we look past our differences and recognize the cold hard facts: illegal drugs play a major role in the current epidemic. Legislators in Albany should not be stigmatizing and penalizing legitimate patients and health care providers as if they are criminals.
New York state’s law enforcement officials gladly embrace the responsibility of protecting their fellow citizens each day. But legislators cannot take this support for granted. Moving forward, they must acknowledge the growing rates of illegal drug abuse and take the steps necessary to prevent further damage. This should include a comprehensive policy response, one that embraces the need for on-the-ground support from our brave law enforcement community.
Manuel Vilar is a sergeant with the New York State Park Police in East Hampton.