Drug epidemic needs help from all levels

Pharmacist Don Cantalino in Uniondale is so alarmed

Pharmacist Don Cantalino in Uniondale is so alarmed by recent shootings at pharmacies that he's decided to get a Nassau pistol permit. "My new theory is that I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six." He has also upgraded their alarm system and panic buttons at his pharmacy. (Jan. 6, 2012) (Credit: Steve Pfost)

Phil Enright, of Medford, has an idea on how to address Long Island's prescription drug abuse problem:

"How about . . . appointing a regional 'drug czar' to address the inefficiencies of the status quo and to focus on prevention, treatment, and recovery with some new fresh and bold solutions?" he wrote in an email.

The concept of a "drug czar" is not new. It came up several years ago when Long Island was grappling with a deadly spike in heroin use. Now, the focus is shifting to prescription drugs, especially oxycodone and hydrocodone.

A report issued last week by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman notes that it's an epidemic, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Could a single drug czar handle the job of helping the region fight back? Or is the job so big that it will -- and should -- also involve every one of us?

Some eye-opening information was included in Schneiderman's report.

Americans constitute 4 percent of the world's population, yet consume 80 percent of the global supply of opioids -- and 99 percent of the supply of hydrocodone. About one in five patients suffering from chronic pain and receiving opioids abuses prescription substances.

"The prescription drug addiction epidemic exhibits all of the societal manifestations of any drug addiction," according to the report, "including accidental overdose, violence and its transmission from mothers to newborn babies."

In short, it's as devastating to people, families and communities as heroin. Five innocent people were killed: a pharmacist, his assistant and three customers died because two people desperate to get prescription drugs robbed two pharmacies.

Law enforcement and other officials in Nassau and Suffolk, rightly, have launched initiatives to help pharmacies protect themselves and their customers. There also are moves to do more, from increasing penalties for prescription-drug-related crimes to better educating doctors and tracking prescriptions.

On Long Island, there are no plans to leave the job to a single person, although officials said they are willing to work together to address the issue.

It will not be easy.

"Protecting pharmacies and doing more with policing and law enforcement is part of the challenge," said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. "We also have to deal with treatment and, especially, prevention."

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano made similar points during a presentation at a Long Island Association meeting Friday.

Still, there's no reason to wait for government to move. There are actions that can be done now to help blunt the crisis.

According to Constantine Ioannou, vice chairman of clinical services in the psychiatry department at Nassau University Medical Center, he's seeing addiction start earlier and earlier in teenagers.

"They tend to come to abuse two ways, either through the medicine cabinet at home or by being introduced to it by someone at a social gathering," he said.

That's why it's essential that parents talk -- and talk frankly enough to acknowledge a family history of addiction, since genetics play a role, Ioannou said.

Families can also clean out the medicine cabinet. Both counties have programs that allow safe disposal of unused medications. They can also learn the signs of addiction, which include withdrawing from family or activities once enjoyed.

Meanwhile, patients can become more aggressive about asking doctors about medications other than opiates that can help relieve pain.

Since 2006, according to the AG's report, oxycodone contributed to more deaths than any other prescription opiate in Nassau. Between 2008 and 2010, prescriptions for opiates increased significantly in both counties.

That must change. But it will take action from public and other officials -- and the rest of us, too.