A North Fork native — a “good kid” and an accomplished athlete, said Mattituck High School principal Shawn Petretti — played lacrosse at the high school level and went on to play for a college out of state.
When he left New York, though, he ran into a college culture of painkiller drug abuse that was inescapable, recalled Mr. Petretti Monday night.
The teen became addicted to the pills, and after graduation went through rehab treatments multiple times. Though he stayed clean for some time after each treatment, he always relapsed, Mr. Petretti said.
He was found dead at the age of 24 last year.< His story isn’t the only one of its kind, though.
“It really hits home what it is that we’re dealing with and how sneaky this epidemic is,” he said. Mr. Petretti said that’s what’s scariest about the heroin and opiate epidemic sweeping Long Island.
“[His parents] did everything right,” he said. “And this still snuck into their life and took their son.”
More than 100 parents, teens and community members packed into the Mattituck High School auditorium Monday night for a more than two-hour presentation on the dangers and signs of opiate and drug use, as well as training in how to use the anti-overdose medication called Narcan.
Heroin itself is an opioid, a type of depressant drug that can be highly addictive. Other opiates include codeine, morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl.
Monday’s event, emotional at times, featured testimony by law enforcement and medical examiners who have seen the affects of the heroin crisis firsthand and urged parents to talk to their children about the dangers of opiate and painkiller abuse.
The event, organized by the high school, local police, the school’s Students Against Drunk Driving club and North Fork Alliance, was the latest in a growing push by local authorities and activists — like Michael’s HOPE (Heroin and Opiate Prevention and Education), an organization that seeks to prevent and spread awareness of the current opioid epidemic — to address the realities of drug abuse today.
“It’s very important to realize that more than anything, substance abuse is a problem in Suffolk County and on the North Fork,” said Southold police chief Martin Flatley. Chief Flatley said the police department has responded to 62 overdoses on the North Fork since 2014 — though those figures include alcohol overdoses as well.
Nancy Ward, a Suffolk County police officer and a self-described “Southold mom,” said it was important for community members to realize the severity of the situation. She emphasized that each statistic about heroin — the more than 300 people who have died of heroin overdoses in Suffolk County since 2012 or the soaring rate of babies born addicted to drugs — represented someone’s son, daughter, brother or sister.
“They’re not nameless,” she said.
Ms. Ward said authorities have been grappling with the epidemic for decades, but it recently has reached a fever pitch, with “powerful, cheap, and easy to get” heroin flooding Long Island’s communities. Heroin, she said, can be bought for roughly $10 or even less in some places, making it an affordable — and dangerous — addiction.
That addiction warps the brain chemistry of addicts, she said, adding that addicts fail to quit not because of weak wills, but because of the stranglehold the drug has on their biological makeup. The need to hit the same highs while using the drug, a phenomenon she dubbed “chasing the dragon,” will cause addicts to turn to crime to support their habit.
“The desperation is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Ms. Ward said.
The heroin epidemic has hit the young most of all. Michael Caplan, a doctor with the Suffolk County medical examiner, explained he has seen more and more young people die to opiate drugs like heroin and oxycodone in recent years.
Many teens are using legal painkillers stolen from medicine cabinets to get high, he said, a trend that can ultimately lead to heroin or harder drug use. Mr. Caplan emphasized parents should be on the lookout for unusual behavior and talk openly and honestly about the fatal risks associated with heroin and painkiller use.
“Don’t deny the dangers,” he said.
The presentation also served as a training session for the use of Narcan, a type of drug that can reverse an opiate overdose and potentially save the life of a drug user who is unconscious, said Jason Byron, a Suffolk County police trainer. Mr. Byron showed the audience how to assemble the applicator for the drug and allowed people to try it out themselves on mannequins at the front of the auditorium.
Mr. Byron emphasized the importance of calling 911 if they suspect someone is overdosing. He said teenagers should understand that the state’s “Good Samaritan” laws protect them from being arrested if they’re caught with drugs after calling for help.
“I’m telling you right now: We cannot arrest you,” Mr. Byron said, noting the police department was only interested in saving the life of the person overdosing.
Several videos were played at the event showing family members of young people, teenagers mostly, who died of heroin or drug overdoses. The videos listed their hometowns: Sound Beach, Rocky Point. During one video, an audience member dabbed away tears.
Ms. Ward said community members should not look at drug addicts like failed members of society, but as desperate people with a serious condition in need of help.
Practically, she said, drug addicts could be high while driving and pose a danger on local roads, or could burglarize houses or cars to steal to support their habit. But Ms. Ward emphasized a more basic reason to care about the heroin crisis: those suffering from addiction are our neighbors.
“You should care, first and foremost because you live here,” she said. “We’re all each other keeper’s here. We should be there to help each other.”
Photo caption: Local police officer Nancy Ward speaks at the drug abuse forum at Mattituck High School Monday night.