By Kassie Parisi
CLIFTON PARK — Local doctors, police officers, recovering addicts and grieving parents came together on Thursday night at Shenendehowa High School to make one point: Unless all of them come together, the opioid epidemic that is causing dozens of deaths all over the country won’t stop.
Panel members addressed a packed auditorium on opioid abuse at an educational forum sponsored by the towns of Clifton Park, Halfmoon, Stillwater, Ballston and Waterford, as well as the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department.
One panel speaker, Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo, said there were 25 overdose deaths last year in Saratoga County. That number, he said, is climbing. So far this year, there have been 28 overdose deaths.
But the opioid crisis spans the country. On Thursday, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.
Panel speaker Molly Boyd, an Albany Medical Center doctor who works in the emergency room, said that dozens of people come into the emergency room every day because of overdoses. She has addict friends, all of whom are in different stages of recovery, but said that many people who come into the emergency room after an overdose don’t make it out alive.
Last year, she pointed out, there were, for the first time in the United States, more adults who died from overdoses than car accidents.
Boyd said she believes the crisis is a direct result of doctors and pharmaceutical companies coming to over-rely on addictive pain medications, such as oxycontin, to relieve patients’ pain.
“If patients aren’t happy, you won’t get paid,” Boyd said, “Opioids have been normalized in our society.”
She added that now, instead of being taught to treat pain with pills, medical students are being trained to find alternative treatments. Doctors are cutting back in the number of prescription drugs they prescribe. And, she said, emergency rooms, police officers, and schools are equipped with Narcan kits that can be used to reverse the effects of an overdose.
Other speakers had more personal, and harrowing, experiences with opioids. An anonymous mother whose son died on his last day of classes at college from a Fentanyl overdose spoke.
“Don’t ever say it can’t be your kid, because it certainly can be,” she said, noting that the day a police officer arrived at her home to tell her that her son had died haunts her every day.
Jason Berben, a Clifton Park native, described his time as a drug dealer and addict, and, subsequently, his multiple stints in prison.
After he did heroin for the first time at 16 years old, Berben described how he sold drugs to make large sums of money. He said he was also a professional at getting prescription drugs from doctors. Eventually, he overdosed in a bathroom at a Stewart’s Shop.
Berben has been off drugs for 21 months, and said that he is living proof that opioids don’t discriminate in the communities that they hit.
“I’m here tonight to tell you that there is hope, because I shot dope for 18 years. I sold drugs in this community. I was the worst of the worst,” Berben said.
Community education is only one way Saratoga County is trying to tackle the epidemic. The county recently announced its decision to pursue a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies and potentially physicians responsible for careless practices in the manufacturing, distribution and prescriptions of opioids.
Other municipalities, including Schenectady County, and towns in West Virginia and California have declared their intention to join similar lawsuits.
But, Berben pointed out, if everyone doesn’t come together to try to fight the epidemic, it’ll continue to get worse. What will curb the epidemic, he said, is not only people working together to support addicts, but to teach both kids and parents early about the dangers of addictive drugs.