Matthew Murr, a 25-year-old from Garden City, had been struggling with drug addiction for years. He was administered the “wonder drug” naloxone after a heroin overdose at the halfway house where he was staying in Brooklyn. One week after he was revived with naloxone, he died of another overdose of several opiates. He was alone in a Brooklyn boardinghouse.
The young man’s mother and father, Denise and Art Murr, describe him as “the good kid” every parent in the neighborhood was glad to have around. Trouble started during high school and increased during his brief attempt at college. Drugs and alcohol sank their hooks into Murr.
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Naloxone, also called Narcan, is an easy-to-use innovation that is practically miraculous. It counteracts the opiate in a user’s system, whether from heroin or prescription pain killers, by blocking and even reversing its deadly effects. But it also blocks the drugs’ desirable and, to an addict, necessary effects.
Its promise is that an addict, spared, now has the opportunity to achieve health and sobriety. The tragedy is that such a chance often doesn’t materialize, and death is merely postponed.
“We had a guy we administered Narcan to three times in a week in 2014,” Nassau County Acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter said. “The third time he died. We have 25 or 30 cases a year of administering Narcan to individuals multiple times.”
When heroin users wake up from naloxone, they are sick from their overdoses and go into withdrawal. Drug users revived with naloxone are generally taken to hospitals to be examined, but not admitted. In New York, they are frequently released just a few hours later, as they are beginning to suffer shakes, severe stomach pain, muscle cramping and overwhelming depression. Addicts often begin seeking drugs to counteract the withdrawal, which to them feels like a serious illness. Sometimes they die of an overdose the same day.
Through six rehabs, endless promises, psychotherapy and recovery attempts, Matthew Murr never found long-term sobriety. After overdosing and being administered Narcan, he left that halfway house in Brooklyn in 2011. His parents said he always left any given treatment option after a relapse, on the theory “it hadn’t worked.”
Problems begin after an overdose
The spread of naloxone on Long Island is a blessing. But as we have seen, it isn’t going to stop the spread of opiate addiction.
There’s a lot more to be done, by everyone from families to teachers to police officers to doctors, to deal with this complex and insidious problem that defies easy solutions. Better and more addiction prevention programs, an even greater crackdown on drug trafficking, and more access to drug treatment facilities are the challenges we are failing to meet.
The problems just begin when an overdose ends. For parents, spouses and friends, an overdose might be the first they hear that a loved one is using heroin or other opiates. And they quickly learn that the chances of getting immediate help are slim.
The heroin epidemic on Long Island is overwhelming, and our response is falling woefully short. From 2009 to 2013, 337 people died from heroin overdoses in Suffolk County, the most of any county in the state. That’s nearly 30 percent more deaths than drunken driving caused in the same period.
Nassau County, whose 128 heroin-overdose deaths were the fifth-highest number in the state during the same period, has a serious problem, too. The county has done more to meet the challenge, yet Krumpter says it is still losing the battle.
Nationally, heroin and other opioids were linked to 28,647 deaths in 2014. Fatal opioid overdoses have quadrupled in the United States since 2000.
There’s a lot of damage to undo. Experts say the seeds of the opiate epidemic were planted in the 1990s when doctors specializing in pain management began to argue that there was an epidemic of untreated agony in the nation, and advocacy organizations began to argue for expanded prescribing of opioids. This corresponded with a push by drug manufacturers for painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin to be used as everyday treatments.
Marketing campaigns downplayed the addictive dangers of the drugs. Doctors would often prescribe 30, 60 or even 90 pills to deal with conditions that needed serious medication only for a day or two. This flooded the nation’s medicine cabinets with opiates.
Many patients got addicted. Some fell victim to the prescriptions, others to a black market flooded with cheap pills. And now that states are cracking down on prescription drugs, fewer pills are making it to the street, and prices have shot up, making inexpensive and easily obtainable heroin the drug of choice for many addicts.
Response must improve
Opiate addiction is particularly serious among the young, those for whom heroin and opiates don’t hold the stigma felt by earlier generations.
We are trying desperately to fight the epidemic, yet our response is largely failing, from hospitals to treatment facilities to support groups to law enforcement to schools to families to communities.
It has to improve, at every level.
This is the first in a series of occasional editorials on the scourge of opioid and heroin addiction. Tomorrow, we will comment on efforts by Nassau County to tackle the problem.