East End residents joined in a candid conversation Wednesday night about how the opioid epidemic has impacted their lives and suggested ways to combat and prevent addiction.
More than 200 people filled the Hampton Bays High School auditorium during the first public forum of the Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force, which will meet twice a month until at least June.
Residents expressed a mix of frustration at how they and their family members struggled with addiction — without always finding adequate resources to deal with it — as well as gratitude that the community was finally coming together to discuss the issue.
Substance abuse experts and residents suggested such measures as parental training to spot addiction, teaching children about substance abuse at a younger age and framing addiction as a brain disorder and symptom of mental illness. They also said they want to change the East End culture that promotes partying because alcohol use is often a gateway to substance abuse.
Task force members said they wanted the public’s help finding answers after fatal opioid overdoses more than tripled in the past year, from five overdoses in 2016 to 17 so far this year.
“If we don’t do something fast, that number is going to keep growing,” Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki told the crowd. “So there’s an urgency to this meeting.”
Town officials also shared the steps they are taking to provide resources. Skrynecki announced a new “no questions asked” substance testing program, which will allow residents to anonymously bring unknown substances to the police department if they suspect a relative is using drugs. The program is expected to begin in January.
But the interactions between residents and officials were at times contentious. When Town Justice Barbara Wilson explained that the town has a drug court, which provides rehabilitation programs as an alternative to prison time for nonviolent offenders, part-time resident Lisa Logan accused Wilson of not understanding her frustration at similar services not working for her son.
Wilson said she knows those feelings well, raising her voice as she mentioned that her dead sister was a heroin addict.
Several people also criticized the makeup of the 27-member task force, which is largely homogeneous, has no members appearing under the age of 30 and includes only one person of color.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, one of the co-chairs, said the task force has just begun, is open to new members and will likely host another forum next year.
Linda Ventura, whose son Thomas, 21, died of a heroin overdose in 2012, also called on legislators to provide access to treatment on demand, citing that insurance companies would not pay for her son’s inpatient treatment until he failed an outpatient program.
“We’re being robbed of a generation we don’t know what they could accomplish,” she said. “We have to do better.”