Heroin and opioid abuse is sweeping the country, and the price is being paid in an unprecedented level of overdose deaths in the nation and in New York City.
In 2015, 33,000 people died in the United States from heroin or opioid overdoses. The city’s overdose total was 937 that year, up 17% from 2014.
In 2016, the city’s overdose deaths surged again, rising another 46% to more than 1,370 incidents. As others have observed, the fatal overdose toll is more than twice the combined number of murders and traffic deaths in the city.
The deadly additive fentanyl is a major contributing cause here. It is being mixed with heroin and cocaine, as well as packaged as counterfeit prescription pills. Thirty to 50 times the strength of heroin, fentanyl was a factor in more than half of New York City overdose deaths in the last six months of 2016, up from 3% of deaths as recently as 2014.
The drugs are cutting a wide swath through our city, affecting neighborhoods all across New York and people in every walk of life. The problem has grown quickly here, as it has across the country, leaving public health and law enforcement officials facing a new and deadly reality.
The de Blasio administration is moving decisively to counter the epidemic in the city through initiatives such as HealingNYC, in which $38 million is invested annually, funding a wide variety of education, treatment, and prevention programs, better data collection, better analysis of heroin and opioid deaths, as well as focused investigations of the dealers whose narcotics cause fatal and non-fatal overdoses. This is a multi-agency effort engaging every relevant city agency in fighting every aspect of this growing problem.
We were at a significant disadvantage several years ago, with incomplete knowledge about overdose deaths and extremely spotty information about non-fatal overdoses. We have much better data now. We are also expanding the capacities of the NYPD lab so that we can analyze the drugs responsible for both fatal and non-fatal cases.
With the Health Department, the Medical Examiner’s Office, and the NYPD sharing data and the lab identifying drug batches with fentanyl, we can detect spikes, and the Health Department can push out public health alerts to warn people about drugs that may potentially kill them. We have laid the intelligence groundwork to analyze this problem and fight it.
Seventeen thousand police officers have been trained in the use of naloxone, and 13,000 are currently carrying it. An opioid interrupter, naloxone can revive overdose victims long enough to transport them to medical care. The NYPD is transitioning to Narcan, a brand of naloxone that is easier to deploy. In the coming months, we expect that 23,000 New York City police officers will be carrying naloxone or Narcan.
The Health Department is issuing warnings about opioids and fentanyl and is raising public awareness of the potential life-saving benefits of naloxone. Programs in schools are teaching good health choices and warning about the hazards of drug use. The NYPD will soon be working to expand public awareness of the New York State Good Samaritan Law, which protects people who seek medical care for overdose victims, as well as for themselves, from incidental arrest for drug possession and use.
We are not looking to make arrests here, but rather to save lives.
But there is also an enforcement side to meeting this challenge. Drug overdose deaths have traditionally been handled as medical emergencies. Now, the NYPD has dedicated resources to follow up on the investigation into these deaths. Detectives have been assigned to units specifically responsible for investigating the drug dealers and suppliers involved in drug overdose cases. We treat the locations of heroin and opioid deaths as crime scenes, assign narcotics detectives to each case, conduct interviews of the victims’ family members, and work to determine how the deadly drugs were obtained. The NYPD has increased its staffing in drug enforcement task forces which focus on narcotics traffickers.
It’s a different way of doing drug enforcement, working back from the damage done to find the people who contributed to it. We expect that these investigations will have a deterrent effect, especially on casual drug dealers — the friends or acquaintances who serve as the intermediaries between users and their suppliers.
This problem may get worse before it gets better. Today’s heroin is cheaper and more powerful. Opioid pills are in plentiful supply. Fentanyl, a proven killer, is showing up in more and more batches of heroin, cocaine, and pills. Protecting people from addiction and overdosing can be a greater challenge than fighting crime. But we will continue to use every means at our disposal to stem the deadly tide and address this serious problem.
Police Commissioner O’Neill’s op-ed was first published by the NY Daily News [HERE].