One woman’s fight for her son’s life shows the need for a coordinated campaign to contain the heroin epidemic

“You should never, ever, ever have your kids on oxycodone,” came a forceful voice from a woman sitting toward the back of the Voorheesville school auditorium.

Her words, for a moment, halted the speaker at last week’s forum on heroin addiction.

We could tell by the passion in her voice that Cheryl Nunamacher had more to say.

She did, indeed. We listened on Saturday as her words gushed out in a torrent. Nunamacher is the mother of three children — she describes her younger two, a son and a daugher, as “over achievers.” Her oldest child has been hooked for 12 years. He’s nearly 30 now and an inmate in Albany County’s jail.

Nunamacher said of her family before her son’s troubles began, “We didn’t know anyone in jail. Now my son’s been in five times,” mostly for probation violations, she said.

“This is a kid that was an angel in school,” she said. But that changed, she said, after a snowboarding accident he had as a teenager, when he was put on oxycodone to deal with the pain and became addicted.

We admire her courage in talking to us and telling her story. Several of the speakers at last week’s forum spoke of the need to overcome the stigma of opioid addiction.

“So many people don’t come forward because they don’t want to be labeled a drug addict,” said Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple who hosted the forum. “They feel embarrassed or ashamed.”

“We have to remove this stigma…,” said State Senator George Amedore. “We can cure this disease.”

By telling her story, Cheryl Nunamacher is reducing the stigma. A special-education teacher in Colonie, she lives in Guilderland where her three children attended the public schools. She is a loving mother and, like the rest of us, wants what is best for her children.

One of the reasons many people in our coverage area — suburban Guilderland and New Scotland and the rural Helderberg Hilltowns — don’t realize that heroin addiction is a problem is because so few people talk about it. The figures released by the sheriff at the Sept. 13 forum are a start and we commend him for hosting the event.

But those numbers, and news of the doubling of deaths from heroin overdoses in Albany County, really hit home when we listen to Nunamacher. She describes the heartbreak of having her younger son marry with his brother in jail. “My older son should have been his best man,” she said.

Nunamacher is breathtakingly honest. She realizes there are two fields of thought on addiction. One, she says, is, “He’s making a choice.” The other is that addiction is an illness.

“Cancer would be easier,” she said. “People would understand what you are going through. And everyone’s putting efforts into looking for a cure.”

We believe drug addiction, like alcoholism, is a disease. It  can start naively enough without a sense of consequence. But, once addiction takes hold, it is tough to reverse and takes not just support from society but great determination and self will.

Lies often come with addiction because all an addict thinks about is feeding his habit. “He’s telling me he’s on a waiting list” for a rehab program at the jail, said Nunamacher. “I don’t believe it … He did it once, came out, and screwed up.”

Nunamacher isn’t taking any chances with her other children. “I’ve done a lot of research,” she said. “You’re predisposed to it, or not.”

Two years ago, when her daughter, living in Queens, became ill with a sore throat, Nunamacher says, “They gave her a prescription for oxy. I flushed it and got her some motrin.”

Certainly, pharmaceutical companies have pushed prescription painkillers for their own profits, and doctors have been complicit by too easily prescribing them and for longer periods of time than needed.

Subpoenas were served on Sept. 18 as part of a coalition of 41 attorneys generals across the United States, seeking information and documents from the distributors and manufacturers of prescription opioid drugs. “We’re committed to getting to the bottom of a broken system that has fueled the epidemic and taken far too many lives,” said New York’s attorney general in a statement.

Across the country, sales of prescription opioids rose 300 percent between 1999 and 2008, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last year, I-STOP legislation went into effect in New York State, requiring doctors to send prescriptions electronically directly to pharmacies rather than writing them on paper. The name I-STOP is an acronym for Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing Act and was meant to keep abusers from going from doctor to doctor and then filling their prescriptions for opioids at different pharmacies. Criminals had used the paper prescriptions as a form of currency.

But, as the sheriff said, “We’ve gotten off the pills and pushed everyone to powder.” That comes with new risks as homemade batches often contain lethal elements.

Nunamacher sees the ravages of heroin all around her. Her daughter’s best friend’s brother died recently in the bathroom of a halfway house.

And, she went on, “We lost another Colonie student this week to a heroin overdose. He was 24.”

She continued, “You can’t tell by reading the obituaries. It’s swept under the carpet.” She knows, too, of a young man who had appeared in Guilderland Town Court because of a heroin addiction who recently died, in Florida, of an overdose. She points out that there is no way the judge he had appeared before would be able to know that.

“Nobody makes the connection,” she said.

Nunamacher says she had to fight to have her son put in jail. “In Guilderland Town Court, he was given community service when he was living under a bridge,” she said. She asks, incredulously, “Who gives someone community service when they’re living under a bridge?”

We wrote in 2014 about another young man, Adam Rappaport, who had also become addicted to painkillers after a snowboarding accident. He ended up in the county jail where he took his own life at the age of 29.

After that tragedy, among the recommendations we made on this page was that the county develop a drug rehab program for willing inmates. In 2015, Apple implemented the Sheriff’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program in a wing of the jail.

Apple said last week that, for Albany County, the average recidivism rate — inmates who return to crime after release from jail — is between 42 and 45 percent. Nationally, he said, the recidivism rate is 75 percent. For inmates who lived on the SHARP wing of the jail, Apple said, the recidivism rate is 15.5 percent.

Apple said at the forum that he went from being a “lock-’em-up guy” a decade ago to someone who now sees the value in treatment. That’s a welcome change because jails across the nation have become like a turnstile for addicts, once released, committing crimes to feed their habits and returning to jail, ad infinitum.

“Substance use disorders are highly prevalent among inmate populations, affecting an estimated 30 to 60 percent of inmates,” according to a February 2014 report by the Federal Bureau of Prisons on detoxification of chemically dependent inmates.

“The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that an estimated 70 percent of all inmates in local jail facilities in the U.S. had committed a drug offense or used drugs regularly, an estimated 35 percent were under the influence at the time of the offense,” the report goes on.

We commend Apple and the county on the program and its progress and we are pleased to hear it is being expanded to include a wing for females as well.

But what if the judges who are sentencing addicts across Albany County aren’t aware of the rehab program? Sentencing an addict to community service isn’t going to help him.

Nunamacher ran into the same problem not just in court but with police. She had her son arrested after he stole her car. She said she had been in Florida when he broke into her house, stole the keys, and was “driving higher than a kite.”

When she called police, Nunamacher said, “They were trying to do me a favor. They said, ‘Are you sure he didn’t borrow it?’”

As a special-education teacher, Nunamacher said, she works not just to teach her students but to act as their advocate, often coordinating services among different departments to ensure the success of the student.

But, when it comes to helping addicts, Nunamacher said, “Nobody’s coordinating these efforts.” It looks to her like the judges, the police, the rehab counselors, and the probation officers each work independently. While Nunamacher has nothing bad to say about any one of these individuals — and expresses gratitude for many — her point is that, without coordination, they can be working at cross purposes.

We recommend assigning an officer to serve as a central clearinghouse for all the agencies involved with addicts and to act as an educator as well. That way, a police officer might see the value of arresting a drug addict for theft when his mother calls, and a judge may see the worth of sentencing him to jail, for treatment, rather than for community service that puts him back on the street.

Nunamacher says that right now she is in “crisis mode” because her son is being released from jail on Oct. 20 and she doesn’t know of a safe place for him to go after that.

“He can’t come here anymore,” she said. “He’ll get a quarter and a phone call,” she said of the jail release.

Last time he was released from jail was on Dec. 23. “I made him dinner and dessert. The next day he was supposed to go to a program,” she recalled.  But her son wouldn’t go. “I had to leave my home and have three male friends come over and tell him to leave. He went back under the bridge ...He was homeless on Christmas Day.”

Nunamacher doesn’t know what bridge her son lives under. “I never visited,” she said. “I get the wet sleeping bag when he comes back home.”

We hope Nunamacher’s son decides to take the difficult steps that lead to a path of recovery. We are grateful for her honesty and hope it encourages others to see, really see, the perils of heroin addiction. Further, we urge those who are working diligently to help solve the problem to better coordinate their efforts.

This will not just save money and save the hurt of crimes but will, most importantly, save lives.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

Updated on Sept. 19, 2017: Information on the coalition of 41 attorneys general demanding information from drug distributors and manufacturers was added when it was released.

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