International Drug Overdose Awareness Day 2

Community members participate in a candlelight vigil in Auburn Aug. 30 as part of a commemoration of International Drug Overdose Awareness Day.

Last week, I was deeply moved by the story of Cecilia Pfeiffer reported by the Auburn Citizen; a 10-year-old from Auburn who after attending a candlelight vigil on addiction was inspired to donate $75 she earned over the summer to the Cayuga County Heroin Epidemic Action League. I was inspired by Cecilia’s compassion and thoughtfulness as well as her desire to take action to tackle what is a true national emergency.

Years into our nation’s devastating opioid crisis, the numbers remain startling and alarming. Last year, 78 New Yorkers died from opioid overdoses in Onondaga County, while 32 lost their lives from heroin. More than 500 people were treated by emergency services for opioid or heroin overdoses alone. The situation is just as dire in our rural counties –16 people died from opioid overdoses in Wayne County, and 11 in Cayuga. And the worst part? These tragedies are not outliers. This crisis has changed little from years prior.

These are not anonymous numbers on a statistical spreadsheet. They are our parents, children, neighbors, and friends from all different socioeconomic backgrounds. And in the United States, drug overdoses are tearing 192 of them away from us every single day.

While serving at the Pentagon as a Middle East policy advisor, I assisted in tackling some of the toughest challenges our nation faced in one of the most fragile regions in the world. One of the things I learned when confronting these complex problems was the need for strong leadership, bold action, and an unbiased, unconflicted commitment to achieve success in the mission at hand. It’s long past time for that same leadership to be exhibited at home so we can reduce this terrible epidemic and start saving lives.

Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of those traits from Washington.

Washington politicians have spent years spouting the same old talking points and claiming a commitment to address addiction. But in reality, it’s just lip service as they refuse to address the problem in a substantive, fundamental way. Worse, they’re still cozying up to the very pharmaceutical companies profiting off American’s addiction in the first place. The problem is pervasive — our very own Rep. John Katko has received more than $40,000 in support from the pharmaceutical industry and drug company lobbyists — while voting them billions in special tax breaks. Too many are failing to look out for the best interests of their constituents and are instead looking out for what’s best for their re-election.

We need a new path.

We need to hold the pharmaceutical companies, who created this crisis through their greed, accountable and ensure they shoulder their portion of the cost to clean up their mess. We must ensure proceeds from the lawsuits and settlements currently being levied against giants like Purdue Pharma are used effectively to expand treatment options and help victims.

We need more Opioid Drug Courts, like the one Syracuse opened earlier this year, where non-violent offenders who have been charged with misdemeanors or non-violent felonies receive treatment to help overcome their addiction, rather than incarceration.

We need more funding for research to ensure we are pursuing evidence-based addiction treatment, healthy pain management, as well as preventing overprescription and enhancing monitoring of prescription drugs.

And we need to examine the use of alternative pain medication like medical marijuana and ensure that overdose reversing drugs like naloxone and opioid addiction medication like buprenorphine, which have saved countless lives, are available to those on the front lines of this crisis.

As we close on the final months of 2019 and enter a new decade, it’s time to commit to fresh leadership and new ideas that identifies the opioid crisis for what it is — a national emergency — and actually treats it as such, instead of using it as political talking points. Only then will we maintain the urgency needed to follow Cecilia’s lead and take immediate action to help thousands of suffering Central New Yorkers begin to heal.

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Francis Conole is a candidate for Congress in New York’s 24th District.