This editorial was first published in the Times Herald-Record (Middletown, New York), a fellow GateHouse Media publication. Guest editorials don't necessarily reflect the Daily Messenger's opinions.
The news that about 69,000 people died from an overdose of drugs in the nation last year is an odd statistic to celebrate. Yet if the preliminary figure holds up, it will mark the first time overdose deaths have declined, albeit slightly, in nearly three decades.
There are several possible reasons, the most likely both depressing and instructive. Because drugs to treat an overdose are so widely available, carried by virtually all emergency responders, many who might have died in years past were revived. That should be the first order of business for a select state Senate task force holding meetings around the state this summer, making sure that the supply of these life-saving drugs is plentiful and inexpensive.
The real test for these senators will be more controversial. If they are going to make a difference, they need to consider measures to help people before they need to be revived, to do all that a government can do to keep people from getting ahold of these drugs and, most important, to stay clean once they make the effort in the first place.
These senators will have to wade into the complex world of medicine and insurance, making sure that medically assisted treatment is much more available than it is now. That is not universally appreciated. There are still those who believe that people should not be using one drug to avoid another, that there are methods that work just as well without the introduction of other medications. And while some are able to get clean and stay that way without Suboxone or methadone or similar medication, there is much convincing medical evidence that many need these drugs.
If the senators are going to take their task seriously, they will need to reach a conclusion on the issue of medically assisted treatment, confront the doubters and ensure that this approach is not only available but funded and supported so that addicts have a better chance of getting the help they need without delay.
But that is not the most controversial idea they will encounter. Those who use illegal drugs often have several other health risks, many related to the use and reuse of needles. Clean needle exchange programs are a necessity in this fight. Even more controversial is the notion of legal injection sites, places where addicts can bring their drugs, get clean needles, inject under the supervision of a medical professional and have access to medical advice and counseling.
The slight decrease noted last year came mostly from a decline in overdoses from heroin and prescription painkillers, offset by increases from the newer drugs on the street, including fentanyl. Those are the drugs that require much more intensive efforts at rehabilitation, including medically assisted treatment, and that are used by people likely to be reached with needle exchanges and injection sites.
There are bills concerning such sites awaiting action when legislators return to Albany in January. No matter what the senators hear or say on this summer journey, the real measure of their commitment and effectiveness will be what they do and how quickly they do it when the new legislative session starts.