By Zvi Gluck
It should come as no surprise that I was one of many who applauded Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement last week that his 2019 budget included mechanisms to combat opioid addiction. In addition to slapping drug manufacturers with a two-cent-per-milligram charge on all opioids sold in the state, a move that is expected to raise $127 million, Cuomo also announced an additional $26 million in funding for the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, all of which will be used to finance better prevention, treatment, and recovery programs. But what might come as a little bit of a shock is just how much of an impact the governor’s actions will have–not just on my life, but also on yours.
It wasn’t all that long ago that we were able to consider ourselves relatively immune to the drug threat that was sweeping the country. Substance abuse was something we heard about and, yes, there was the occasional whispering here and there even within the Jewish community, but those stories were few and far between. Today, those days of living in a safe little bubble are long gone, which is what makes Governor Cuomo’s plan to fight the opioid crisis all the more important.
I was honored to be named to the governor’s Suicide Prevention Task Force this past November, with New York having the dubious distinction of being fifth in the nation when it comes to suicides. Committees like this, which include a broad range of individuals, are instrumental in tackling problems of this magnitude, bringing a greater understanding to the table as the first step in structuring a resolution. Having spoken both officially and informally with other members of the task force, it is clear that a high percentage of suicides in New York are linked to drug use, something we have seen at Amudim, where we have witnessed the deaths of more than 370 members of the Jewish community under the age of 35 over the last two years.
Having personally been on the forefront of the war against drugs for 18 years–including nearly four at the helm of Amudim where we have worked with more than 900 people suffering from addiction–I can tell you that we still cannot pinpoint the exact reasons that people turn to drugs, but certain common denominators are clear. Not surprisingly, abuse victims and experimental drug users have found themselves trapped in the web of addiction, but we have also seen a huge upswing in drug users who began taking opioids legitimately prescribed to them by their doctors, including car-accident victims, cancer patients, and people recovering from surgery.
That last group is extremely problematic as it encompasses a much wider range of the population that becomes unintentionally entangled in the world of drugs and, worse yet, represents a problem that could have easily been avoided. As the statistics continue to emerge about this ever-growing demographic of drug users, pharmaceutical companies continue to fight us tooth and nail for financial reasons, and we are finding that doctors are still far too quick to write prescriptions for opioids when other non-addictive options are available. Even in situations where opioid use is indicated, the cases that we are seeing demonstrate that doctors need to do a better job of weaning patients off of these painkillers so that they don’t turn to the streets looking for their next fix when they can no longer get refills on their prescriptions. Equally frightening is the fact that we are seeing more and more couples who are addicted to opioids, with children as young as age 13, as well as adults in their thirties, forties, and fifties also falling victim to this insidious epidemic.
Having seen during the first two weeks of January 2018 that our call volume has more than doubled over the same period last year, it is encouraging to see additional financial support from Albany as the state partners with us to raise awareness, provide greater education, and fund treatment programming. Governor Cuomo’s financial commitment to combating opioid addiction isn’t just a positive development for those of us at Amudim–it is a much-needed step in the right direction that will benefit the entire Jewish community, which is often called upon to shoulder the financial burdens of therapy and treatment, or, worse yet, taking on even greater financial responsibilities if the worst should happen.
As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but we need to chip away at this problem one step at a time. First and foremost, we need to increase awareness in our schools and have appropriate educational programming in all of our high schools all across the religious spectrum. Far from pushing our kids towards drugs, equipping them with the facts about substance abuse is one of the most effective weapons in the war on drugs.
Secondly, there is so much more that needs to be done. If someone turns to drugs because of an earlier trauma, that underlying cause must be addressed before any further treatment can take place. Finally, family members whose loved ones have a drug problem need professional guidance, both to address the peripheral damage that they themselves have sustained and also to help them understand how they can be part of the solution.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but the truth is that it takes a universe to help those who are suffering from addiction. No matter where you live, where you daven, or where you send your kids to school, chances are that the opioid epidemic has touched you in some way. It is up to you and me and everyone all around us to find a way to turn the tide. Governor Cuomo’s efforts are a step in the right direction; now it is up to us follow his lead by facing the problem head on, embracing with love those who are suffering, and supporting them in every way possible in their journey back to good health.
Zvi Gluck is the director of Amudim, an organization dedicated to helping victims of abuse and those suffering with addiction within the Jewish community. He has been heavily involved in crisis intervention and management for the past 18 years. For more information, visit www.amudim.org.