Opioid Crisis Requires New Approach to Handling Addicts

By Brendan Kennedy

Bridget Brennan

New York City’s top narcotics prosecutor and two innovative judges from Buffalo and the Bronx agree that the opioid epidemic requires a re-thinking of how to handle cases involving those addicted to opioids.

A panel discussion at the New York State Bar Association’s Annual Meeting titled, ‘Opioids; Availability, Physician Involvement, Enforcement Issue and Treatment Courts,’ brought together experts that have dealt first-hand with the damage that can be done to communities and individuals.

Bridget G. Brennan, special narcotics prosecutor for the City of New York, Hon. Craig D. Hannah, supervising judge, Buffalo City Court and Hon. George Grasso, supervising judge, Bronx County, each spoke about the difficulties dealing with an epidemic that saw a 200% increase in overdose deaths in New York between 2010 and 2017.

Brennan described the different waves of this epidemic, how it has evolved over time and its impact, which is becoming even more deadly with the introduction of synthetic opioids like fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.

The number of overdose deaths nationwide was more than 64,000 in 2016, which is more than the total deaths in the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan Wars combined. In New York State alone the number of overdose deaths was over 2,300.

“Overdose deaths have eclipsed the combined deaths of homicide and traffic fatalities,” Brennan said. “This is a crisis of despair, not just of oversupply. These drugs have a significant impact on the brain, causing dependence on them. It’s an insidious addiction, that we cannot arrest our way out of.”

The opioid epidemic has gone through numerous phases according to Brennan, who has served in her current role since 1998. She described how it began as rogue doctors overprescribing dangerous and addictive pills like Oxycodone, but prosecutors were able to put a stop to that through arrests and prosecutions. Oxycodone prescriptions have been steadily decreasing since 2015, peaking that year with 1.3 million, current data shows that there are just over 1 million prescriptions.

The cost of the drug was also a big factor in precipitating the decline.

“The cost of these pills could reach as high as $30 per pill, which drove addicts to the streets to find a cheaper alternative,” Judge Hannah said. “When it costs $30 for oxy and $5 for heroin, it became an economic choice.”

Both Judge Hannah and Judge Grasso are working with the Office of Court Administration to look at these cases in a new light. Finding a way to treat these cases with innovative pre-trial services is imperative for success.

In the Buffalo Opioid Intervention Court, Hannah can see clients, as he refers to them, within hours of their arrest and after it’s established that they have an opioid addiction. If enrolled, participants are released from custody if they agree to follow the established treatment protocol, which is developed by Hannah and his staff for each individual enrolled.

“This model became necessary because people were not making it to their next court appearances,” he said. “They would be arrested and as can be the case with many addicts, the next hit could likely be their last.”

On the opposite side of the state, Bronx County Criminal Court established two specialized courts that targeted low-level offenders at high risk of overdose, a first for New York City. Under the direction of Judge Grasso, the Overdose Avoidance and Recovery (OAR) court offers treatment as an alternative to incarceration. Those that complete the OAR program will have their cases dismissed and sealed.

“Meaningful engagement with these offenders, like linking them with community service organizations, is the goal,” he said. “The OAR court was created with a group of like-minded agencies that share a common goal in saving lives.”

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