Parents are among the most stalwart figures in Long Island’s fight to curb the opioid crisis. Too many have lost children to addiction. They join community coalitions and turn out for public forums, clutching photos of their kids in high school football jerseys and prom dresses.
There are many such parents. From 2012 to 2015, there were more than 670 fatal opioid overdoses, according to the Nassau County Medical Examiner’s Office. Many of the victims were in their teens and 20s.
In response to the rising number of opioid deaths on Long Island, first-responders, teachers and even parents are increasingly administering Naloxone, used to revive overdose victims. The drug — which first came on the market in 1971 — gives addicts a second or third lease on life. To administer it, one must first be trained in its use. At training sessions, we often hear a question: What happens to overdose victims once they have been revived? What then?
When addicts are hospitalized — often at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow — they undergo detoxification to cleanse their bodies of the drugs that nearly killed them. Detox does little to loosen the vise-like grip that the drugs have over addicts, however. Once detox is over, users often return to the streets, where they immediately buy drugs and get high — or steal to get money to buy drugs to get high.
That is why an increasing number of lawmakers are touting legislation that would require addicts to be hospitalized involuntarily for three days, until they have fully sobered up and had time to think through whether they will return to their lives of addiction or seek help with long-term treatment facilities, either in-patient or out-patient.
Given the gravity of the opioid epidemic, the measure deserves serious consideration. Enacting it would require an amendment to New York’s Kendra’s Law, which was signed in 1999 after Kendra Webdale was pushed in front of a New York City subway by a schizophrenic man who had previously been hospitalized but released. The law allows health professionals to evaluate mentally ill patients and hold them involuntarily if they are deemed potential threats to society. Before the law, for such patients to be held, they had to have committed acts of violence.
The reasoning behind involuntary hospitalization for seriously addicted detox patients would be similar. Heroin addicts are potential threats not only to themselves, but also others. At the Herald, we have covered the opioid crisis since 2010. For one story, we interviewed a young man who told us he was so hopelessly addicted to heroin that he often got high while driving on the Southern State Parkway. He would buy the drug from a dealer in Brooklyn and return to North Merrick via the parkway. His girlfriend, also a heroin addict, would sit beside him and shoot him up while he steered through traffic.
There is little doubt that Kendra’s Law has proven effective. According to the state Office of Mental Health, in the decade after the law was enacted, 90 percent of patients who were involuntarily hospitalized under the measure said they were likely to keep appointments with the mental-health professionals overseeing their cases, and 75 percent said they had gained control over the lives.
Some 30 states have enacted measures similar to Kendra’s Law.
Last November, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, proposed a sweeping legislation package aimed at curbing the opioid crisis. Among its provisions was a 72-hour involuntary holding period for addicts, during which doctors would evaluate them and offer treatment recommendations.
We like Baker’s proposal because it not only would ensure that addicts were properly evaluated, but also would upgrade certification requirements for treatment facilities to ensure that they met uniformly high standards, as well as pour tens of millions of dollars into treatment.
For years, the Herald has argued that non-violent drug addicts must be treated with sympathy. Too often they are seen as petty criminals who must be locked up long-term, when what they need are better treatment options.
In New York, there simply aren’t enough beds at long-term, in-patient treatment facilities. Our state, county and even our local governments must do more to ensure that there are. Otherwise, any 72-hour holding period would largely be worthless.
After addicts were held for three days, they would need — absolutely need — treatment facilities where they could seek the help they so desperately require.