While drug enforcement remains a critical piece in the fight against opiates, the importance of prevention and avoiding addiction are equally - if not more - significant.
On Monday, community leaders, medical personnel and law enforcement officials joined families and recovering addicts at a community drug forum to discuss addiction - and its particular effect on young people- in greater detail.
Held in the Katherine Jackson Carnahan Center at Jamestown Community College, the forum served as a follow-up to March's drug forum in Mayville, and was once again chaired by County Executive Vince Horrigan and Pat Brinkman, county director of the Department of Mental Hygiene.
Pictured here is Dr. David Withers, associate director of the Marworth Treatment Center in Pennsylvania, using fruits and vegetables to illustrate the effects of opiates on the brain during Monday’s drug forum at Jamestown Community College.
P-J photo by A.J. Rao
"We all want results for this incredible scourge that is impacting our community," Horrigan said. "We need to get people off the street who are dealing, but treatment for (addiction) is very, very important."
Brinkman echoed Horrigan's call to action, describing addiction as a chronic disease that shows no mercy for anyone.
"(Addiction strikes) individuals across all socioeconomic groups, races and genders," she said. "It changes not only individuals and families, but communities as well."
Guest speaker Michelle Spahn, resident agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Administration's Buffalo office, focused on what she referred to as an "explosion" of prescription drugs or pharmaceuticals in the past decade that has left many addicted and prone to overdose.
"(Addicts) feel that (prescription drugs) are safer than other substances like coke or heroin," Spahn said. "But some (of these drugs) are nothing but synthetic heroin."
Spahn indicated that 90 percent of emergency room admissions and 75 percent of rehabilitation admissions in Erie County during 2013 were opiate-related in some fashion.
While progress has been made, according to Spahn, in dispensing naloxone kits, propping up drug drop-off boxes and setting up I-STOP - an online system for tracking over-prescribing - the ubiquitousness of opiates makes prevention the ultimate solution.
Dr. David Withers, associate director of the Marworth Treatment Center in Pennsylvania, described how mere experimentation with opiates can lead to adverse effects.
"(For those) who experiment with drugs, 80 percent will be fine," said Withers, who acknowledged that drug experimentation can be a natural phase and an opportunity to learn from poor judgement. "But 20 percent will have trouble ... half of this 20 percent because of genetics and the other half because of their environment."
Withers, using fruits and vegetables to illustrate the effects of opiates on the brain, labeled addiction as a "pediatric/adolescent disease" because of young people's predilection to experiment and their inability to exercise sound judgement.
Of course, some young people become addicted for more innocuous reasons.
Avi Israel, a Buffalo man who became a parent advocate after his 20-year-old son, Michael, shot himself over an opiate addiction, described how his son's condition developed not from experimentation, but from doctors attempting to treat his son's Crone's disease by overprescribing medications.
"A prescription pad started this epidemic," said Israel, who lambasted doctors and pharmaceutical companies for shielding themselves behind mountains of money and their subsequent political leverage. "There's big money in addiction. My son would still be alive today if somebody told me not to listen to (his) doctor."
Israel, who further acknowledged that many still experience delays in getting their family members help locally, brought representatives from Erie County facilities and programs to offer their services.
These included Horizon Health, one of the leading drug addiction, rehabilitation and mental health service providers in Western New York, and Face 2 Face, a proactive early education and intervention program.
Horrigan, who has maintained a dogged approach in tackling the local heroin and opiate epidemic, showed no signs of quitting.
"This (drug epidemic) goes to the heart of our quality of life," Horrigan said. "So we're going to work hard ...we're going to use persistence and tenacity to get our arms around this problem ... so that we can look back sooner rather than later and say it we got the results that we were looking for."