A new task force and a conversation about addiction

Kristin Smith-Hoin

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Summer's story: Kristin Smith-Hoin tells an emotional tale of her daughter, Summer Smith, who lived with an addiction most of her life and died from an overdose in 2014.

GUILDERLAND — Andrew McKenna recalls a time after he had just taken heroin when he couldn’t move as he was watching a friend who had  just shot up turning blue in the face and dying.

The next thing he remembers is sitting in his car. He had called 9-1-1, but didn’t stay in the Schenectady apartment where his friend was dying. He was afraid of getting caught, and so he watched from a distance as paramedics carried his friend’s body out of the building.

McKenna, who once held a job as a federal prosecutor, became addicted to heroin after being prescribed a high dosage of prescription painkillers to treat a back injury he had sustained while training in the United States Marine Corps. He described to an audience at a Guilderland High School forum last Wednesday night how he subsequently lost everything to his addiction: his job, his family, and — after being sentenced to over five years in prison — his freedom.

That morning, Albany County had announced a program to try to prevent the leap from painkiller use to opioid dependency: a drug takeback program called Project Orange, named for the color of prescription drugs’ containers. The program allows patients to return unused prescription drugs to their pharmacy in an envelope certified by the national Drug Enforcement Administration, said county spokeswoman Mary Rozak. The county has partnered with Crestwood Pharmacy in Albany, Four Corners Pharmacy in Delmar, and Marra’s Pharmacy in Cohoes, which will be providing the envelopes.

Albany County has also sponsored drug take-back days where medication can be returned at a specified location. The most recent one was on April 29.

Another new county initiative is an Opioid Task Force to bring together groups such as law enforcement and public health officials to communicate on the current opioid epidemic, said Rozak. The county health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, and county mental health commissioner, Stephen Giordano, are co-chairing the task force.

Goals include preventative measures such as increasing public awareness and reducing the stigma of drug addiction, reaching out to youth, encouraging safe storage and disposal of drugs, and training in the use of the overdose-stalling drug naloxone (frequently referred to by the brand name Narcan). The group is also seeking to make treatment more available, and is exploring other options in the criminal justice system such as Law Enforcement-Assisted Diversion and Drug Court, according to Rozak.

Summer Smith’s story

McKenna was one of several people who spoke at Guilderland High School about addiction and recovery — not just from heroin, but from a variety of addictive substances. Kristin Smith-Hoin, mother of the late Summer Smith, spoke first. She explained how her daughter’s history of sexual abuse and mental illness led to an addiction to various substances. Smith, a Guilderland High School graduate, began drinking at 9, said Smith-Hoin; and, while she was addicted to heroin, what killed her at age 31 was when she relapsed and consumed alcohol and synthetic cannabis  often called spice.

Smith-Hoin emphasized that Smith had developed a problem with addiction long before the media became focused on the opioid epidemic, and said that people would continue to suffer from addiction even after attention on the problem goes away.

Smith-Hoin encouraged the audience to attend a 5K run on May 13 at 9 a.m. Funds raised at the event will be split evenly among the Addiction Care Center of Albany, Friends of Recovery New York, and the Schenectady YMCA where Smith was living at the time of her death. Smith ran in a 5K the month before she died and her mother has since taken up the sport.

Smith had been in recovery before she relapsed. It was this stage of addiction the Robert Lindsey addressed at the Guilderland forum. The former chief executive officer of Friends of Recovery, Lindsey told the audience that 11 of his family members are recovering from addiction.

Lindsey later told The Enterprise that understanding recovery involves understanding that addiction is a disease, and, like any disease, recovery can be maintained with mental and physical care. Changes of diet and exercise can help prevent a relapse, he said, but it’s a “lifelong process.”

Smith-Hoin also spoke of her daughter’s dealings with the criminal justice system. An arrest was a relief for Smith-Hoin, she said, because she knew her daughter was safe. She also noted that Schenectady’s Drug Court, which provides treatment to addicted offenders, had been beneficial for her daughter.

Law enforcement

Hector Fernandez, an investigator for the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, described his own interactions with drug addicts as a police officer. The sheriff’s office often has users become informants on drug dealers, said Fernandez.

He spoke of one user who lived in Troy, prostituting herself to feed her addiction to heroin and crack-cocaine. After Fernandez lost contact with her as a source, he found out she had been arrested and sent to Rensselaer County’s jail.

Fernandez visited the woman in jail, where she was healthier, he said. Cut off from access to crack-cocaine or heroin, she had put on weight — she had weighed just 105 pounds — and seemed overall better. But she was shortly released from jail, he said, and soon was back to using drugs and prostituting herself. She needed months in jail, he said, to overcome the addiction.

Guilderland Police Chief Carol Lawlor, who was not present at the meeting, told The Enterprise that the number of reported heroin overdoses has increased over the past five or six years.

“We’ve had numerous cases,” she said. She added that the naloxone, or narcan, which the department started using nearly three years ago to the day, has helped limit the number of deaths from overdoses.

Lawlor is a member of the county’s new task force. With the task force emphasizing community, law enforcement, and healthcare, Lawlor said communicating with these groups is vital to curb the heroin epidemic.

“Education is integral,” she said. “I completely believe in educating the public.”

Lawlor said her department has communicated with schools, churches, and civic organizations. A year-and-a-half ago, the elementary schools restarted the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE program.

The Guilderland Police Department informs the public of the dangers of heroin — or any drug — and to be on the lookout for signs of drug abuse from their friends or loved ones. The public should also be aware of who to contact or where to go if help is needed.

Like Albany County, Guilderland Police also track down drug dealers; and while cutting off the supply is helpful, Lawlor notes the community also needs resources such as available rehabilitation centers and insurance coverage for treatment.

“People can’t just stop using heroin because they want to,” she said.

According to the county’s mental health department website, the number of people receiving treatment for heroin addiction in the Capital Region went from 4,916 in 2013 to 6,385 in 2014; that’s over twice the number in 2007, which was 2,555. Annually, Albany and Rensselaer counties receive 470 opiate-related emergency-room visits and 166 opiate-related hospitalizations.

Giordano told The Enterprise in January that the most significant increase in drug use over the last decade has been of heroin or other opiates. He cited county-treatment admission data that identified 30.7 percent admitted for heroin or other opiate use, and said that those admitted for heroin or other opiates has increased three times between 2005 and 2015. In 2015, there were 39 confirmed opiate-related deaths in the county.


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