Task force aims to change how county fights growing opiate epidemic

WEST SENECA, N.Y. (WIVB) — It’s been close to a year and a half since Brianna Cormier plunged a heroin filled needle into her arm.
She’s clear-eyed and clear-headed, after abusing drugs and alcohol from age 16 to 22.

“The fun didn’t last for too long,” she said. “It took me to a really dark place.”

Marijuana and booze in her teens turned to pills. Pills turned quickly to heroin by her early 20s.

“When I used them, I found what I thought was the missing piece from my life,” Cormier said. “It gave me confidence. It made me feel energy. When I started using those drugs, I felt like I had found the missing piece to the puzzle.

Cormier went to jail after being nabbed with possession of hypodermic needles. She quickly realized jail wouldn’t cure her disease.

“I went to jail, was in there for a week,” she said. “My dad came and visited me, and I said I swear I will never do this again. The day I got out, I got high.”

That’s the reality leaders in Erie County are facing.

Opiate overdose deaths have more than doubled in the past year.

Changes are on the way through a newly formed task force that joins law enforcement, government and health and social services to work toward a common goal.

“Addiction is really a chronic disease,” said Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein. “And so instead of putting people into jail for a chronic disease, we have to try to help them get into care.”

They key is to have buy-in from law enforcement agencies. Most in Erie County were represented during the task force’s first meeting Monday.

“It’s a change of philosophy,” said Daniel Rinaldo, drug intelligence officer with NY/NJ High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA. “It’s a different approach for law-enforcement to this problem, and everybody has to be all in.”

Cormier said she believes that change will be successful.

“The rehab gave me the swift kick that I needed to wake up, but the 12-step program has really and truly saved my life, in all areas,” she said. “I think it’s tremendous that there are so many efforts being put in (to bring the epidemic under control).”

Cormier made it out of a deadly lifestyle, and considers herself lucky.

“I’m just so grateful to be alive, because people are dying left and right,” she said. “I want to live today. My life is beautiful and it’s beyond my wildest dreams because I never thought I’d use drugs, and then when I was where I was, I didn’t think I’d make it out alive.”

Portions of the task force is modeled after a hugely successful program in Gloucester, Mass., where heroin and overdoses — and deaths associated with them — have run rampant.

But, in the past year, through a collaborative approach, the law enforcement community has dropped overdoses more than 30 percent, and it’s put hundreds of people through treatment programs in the past year. The key: giving addicts the chance to enter recovery programs and avoid jail.

“We’ve had healthcare providers, rehab providers, around the country call us,” Rinaldo said. “If there are enough beds locally, these people come in and help us.”

The task force is planning to meet once a quarter to discuss progress and new initiatives. Rinaldo said the new law enforcement approach could be installed within the next few months.

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