The meeting rooms in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, especially this time of year as the state legislature races toward its session deadline, are generally filled with loud, boisterous, often confrontational conversations.
But that wasn’t the case Thursday at a forum on the opioid and heroin crisis sponsored by the Commission on Children.
Speaker after speaker told stories of their own addiction battle or about losing loved ones, mostly young people, to opioid and heroin addiction while legislators, law enforcement, and medical officials and others in the audience listened quietly, intently, many wiping tears from their eyes.
Lisa Cote Johns’ son, Christopher, died at age 33 on Oct. 2, 2014. He died from a heroin overdose. She told the forum that “the system had failed” her son, who struggled for years with addiction.
“He begged for a program that would help him,” Johns said. “But there were never enough beds available. We can’t have kids waiting to get a bed,” she continued. “No mother should have to wear their kid’s ashes around their neck,” Johns told the hushed forum audience.
Johns, of Montville, and her husband, Joe de la Cruz, of Groton, are founding members of Community Speaks Out Inc., a newly formed nonprofit dedicated to working with families to get help for addicts.
Johns said addiction “needs to be treated like any other mental illness” and resources need to be dedicated to it.
Another speaker was Matthew DeLuca, who described himself as a “recovering addict.”
DeLuca, from Community Addiction & Recovery Education & Support (C.A.R.E.S) Group of Fairfield County, said “long term treatment is what is needed. These are not bad people. They are sick. They need your help.”
Besides addicts or relatives of people who died from heroin or opioid abuse, other panelists at Thursday’s session included those who work in the field of treating those with addiction issues.
Dr. Muhammad Hassan Majeed, a pediatric psychiatrist at Natchaug Hospital, said one of the most effective ways of treating the growing drug crisis in Connecticut has nothing to do with treatment.
“Lock up your medicine cabinets in your homes,” Majeed said. “That is where your kids are starting their drug habit.”
One of the speakers, Jeanne Milstein, director of Human Services for New London, cautioned that the opioid crisis isn’t just a “young person” problem. “We are also looking at the impact in our city of children whose parents are addicted,” Milstein said.
The forum was held a day after U.S. Attorney Deirdre M. Daly, Deputy Chief State’s Attorney Leonard C. Boyle, and Special Agent in Charge Michael J. Ferguson of the Drug Enforcement Administration announced a statewide initiative targeting narcotics dealers who distribute heroin, fentanyl, or opioids that cause death or serious injury to users.
Beginning in January of this year, the DEA’s New Haven Tactical Diversion Squad, state and local police, and a team of prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office have investigated approximately 20 heroin and opioid overdoses that have occurred in Connecticut. Most of the overdoses have resulted in death.
Currently, there are ongoing investigations of overdoses that occurred in Danbury, Derby, Enfield, Greenwich, Middletown, Newtown, New Haven, Norwalk, Norwich, Shelton, Stamford, Vernon, Weston, Willimantic, and Woodbridge.
“We are combating a tragic opioid epidemic that is plaguing Connecticut and much of the country,” Daly said.
“Deaths caused by heroin or prescription opioids have devastated hundreds of families from every corner of our state,” Daly said. “This statewide initiative will enable law enforcement to quickly determine if a highly toxic drug is on the street and take steps to identify the source of the drug in order to keep it out of the hands of vulnerable users.”
She promised they would convict those responsible for distributing the drugs.
Also, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, delivered a floor speech highlighting devastating statistics from the Centers for Disease Control which show opioid and heroin related deaths have nearly quadrupled between 2004 and 2014, the last available year for which there is national data.
Courtney is the lead sponsor of a House bill to provide $600 million in emergency funding to address the drug abuse epidemic which has 24 co-sponsors, and has been endorsed by 21 independent organizations.
Connecticut’s bleak fiscal condition has dominated the legislative debate, but the opioid and heroin crisis hasn’t escaped legislators’ attention.
The Public Health Committee recently voted unanimously in favor of two bills designed to address what many on the committee referred to as the “opioid crisis” in Connecticut.
The committee also amended one of the bills to put a seven-day cap on opioid prescriptions, in an effort to rein in what many phrase as “over-prescribing” of painkillers.
The seven-day cap was attached to SB 352, which largely made a product to reverse opioid overdoses more readily available to people who need them.
The legislation seeks to allow pharmacists to dispense a nasal antagonist to any person at risk of experiencing an opioid-related overdose or to a family member, friend, or other person in a position to assist a person overdosing.
The committee also approved SB 353, which expands membership on the Connecticut Alcohol and Drug Policy Council to include municipal chiefs of police and licensed drug counseling professionals, as well as those receiving treatment at community-based programs.
The proposal also calls for the council to develop a more robust statewide action plan with a goal of reducing the number of opioid-induced deaths in Connecticut by one-third over a three-year period.