Last week, my Long Island community was thrown into chaos and grief when a man desperate for prescription painkillers shot and killed four people at a pharmacy in Medford, NY. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. According to the DEA, armed robberies at pharmacies rose 81% in just 4 years (between 2006 and 2010). However, this particular event hit home for me; not only did it take place close to my neighborhood, but it was a tragic consequence of our country’s chronic substance abuse problem—an epidemic that we at Phoenix House fight very day. Our response needs to be twofold: protection and prevention. We must better regulate drug supply, but more importantly, we need to address demand and combat our nation’s alarming propensity for substance abuse.
Combating the abuse of prescription pain medications is particularly difficult because the drugs in question are legal and can be essential pain management options. However, because they are also life-threatening and extremely addictive, we must encourage and support legislation that requires doctors to participate in special training programs in order to properly monitor and prescribe them. To address the “doctor-shopping” trend (patients getting multiple prescriptions from various doctors), physicians must be able to track and identify patients who are likely to abuse addictive substances.
These methods call for action on the national level, for they would be ineffective if they had to be implemented state-by-state. For desperate individuals struggling with addiction, driving across a state line to obtain prescriptions will hardly be a deterrent.
As we increase our ability to oversee access to these drugs, it is crucial to also increase our prevention and early intervention services. We have learned as a country that allocating our funds to fight the drug supply is meaningless unless we also combat demand. If people want to get high, they will get high; look at the teens that have been snorting bath salts and smoking incense. I met with one young man who was secretly taking a peer’s acne medicine. When I asked him why, he shrugged and replied, “I don’t know, it just feels different.”
When you want to feel different, there’s always going to be a way. This is why we need to focus on prevention, education and early intervention. The ultimate goal of Phoenix House’s new SBIRT services (Screening, Brief Intervention and Referrals to Treatment) is to identify those at risk and intervene at the earliest signs of unsafe drug use. This initiative uses motivational interviewing, a scientifically tested practice proven to lead to positive behavioral changes. It provides individuals with information about their current substance use and its potential impact, and it helps them develop healthy alternatives.
Addiction is a chronic disease, and we need to provide people with the tools and resources to prevent and manage it, just as we do for such other chronic diseases as diabetes and hypertension. We need not let the shattering event of the Medford shooting further stigmatize substance abuse. Yes, it was addiction that brought David Laffer into that pharmacy in search of pills, but it was the man and not the addiction that committed the senseless murder of four innocent people. This is something that one person addicted to drugs did, but it’s not what all people addicted to drugs do—and it is my honest belief that if our nation truly commits and invests in protection, prevention, and comprehensive cost-effective treatment, we would be able to avoid such tragedies in the future.
Traci Donnelly, M.S.
Senior Vice President and Regional Director
Phoenix Houses of New York