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Albany County Introduces Task Force To Help Combat Opioid Crisis

Some 78 people die each day across the country from prescription opioid-related overdoses and statistics show 4 out of 5 of heroin users started with prescription opioids.  Albany County now has a task force in place to battle the crisis.

The Albany County Opioid Task Force, unveiled Wednesday at Crestwood Pharmacy in Albany, has a Mission: Impossible assignment —  educate the public and round up unused prescription drugs before they end up in the wrong hands.

Albany County Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen says "Project Orange" is named for the orange label that accompanies controlled substances prescriptions, including opiate medications. "What this project is designed to do is two things. First, to provide important education about these medications to patients or customers who are receiving opiate prescriptions or have unused opiate medications in their home. And secondly, to provide a safe, convenient and environmentally friendly way to dispose of opiate medications."

The messages of Project Orange are simple.   "Take your medication as directed and do not share. Store your medication securely in your home, and safely dispose of unused medication. How Project Orange works is also very simple.  If you have unused opiate medications in your home, bring it to a participating pharmacy and you'll be provided, free of charge, with a DEA-certified pre-paid take-back envelope. Put your unused prescription in it, seal it and mail it."

Three county pharmacies are leading the drive: Crestwood, Marra's in Cohoes and the Four Corners pharmacy in Delmar. It is hoped more will follow.  Albany County Executive Dan McCoy suggests everyone do a sweep through the house.   "Take the time, take a garbage bag, empty everything out, then come here and put it in an envelope that we can get rid of it in a timely manner, but a safe manner. Because the only way we're going to stop this heroin epidemic, and the only way we're gonna stop kids falling into this trap is we take the first step, and get rid of all the medication layin' around your house."

State Assemblyman and pharmacist John McDonald says he and McCoy often have conversations on curbing opiate abuse. He says Project Orange has an advantage over previous methods of dropping off old drugs.  "It's about integrating and using the pharmacist to engage and talk to the patient and counsel them, and give them the opportunity to safely dispose of those medications.  80 percent of every heroin user started with an opioid prescription. What people also don't realize is that it takes three days of continued use of an opioid to become addicted."

Acting Albany Police Chief Bob Sears is on the 19-member task force:  "A lot of the violence in most of the inner cities happen because of the drug trade. This is no different, whether it's heroin, marijuana or crack cocaine. Heroin is at an all-time high right now we're seeing as far as the deaths, the overdoses, and the violence associated with it is definitely at an all-time high, so there is definitely a correlation. We direct a lot of our resources towards combatin' a lot of those issues, and um you know programs like this is just one of the pieces that we use to combat these things. Assistance from the governor is gonna help as well, so we're not lookin' to work in our silos anymore. We need to take all of our partners, have everyone, you know, give what they can, and work toward getting to a place where we don't have to have these things anymore."

Despite several state and federal programs attempting to address the scourge of opioids as well as public health advocates lobbying for the creation of "safe consumption spaces," which provide a secure supervised location for drug users, the problem continues to spiral out of control.  According to the Rockefeller Institute, New York's overdose death rate shot up 71 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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