City of Tonawanda looks at ways to combat opioid epidemic
Last month, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced that seven Erie County residents had died in 24 hours because of a deadly batch of heroin. Judge Mark E. Saltarelli said two of these deaths happened in the City of Tonawanda.
The Tonawanda City Court judge has been involved with the drug court on a full-time basis since January 2016.
In the midst of the opioid epidemic, community leaders in the City of Tonawanda are seeking ways to offer help and fight the epidemic.
Saltarelli noted that the problems are not those that happen in the drug court.
“The problems are the people who get treated under the Good Samaritan Law who are not arrested or not mandated any type of treatment,” he said.
The Good Samaritan Law provides broad protection for individuals to seek assistance without fear of arrest if they are having a drug or alcohol overdose that requires emergency medical care.
This is why Saltarelli is urging local lawmakers to amend the law to define health care to be more than simply administering Narcan to an individual.
Narcan is an emergency treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose.
His proposal requires the person who’s treated to sign up with a certified treatment provider within three business days “so that they get the proper counseling and be linked to whatever they feel they need to break this addiction.”
If the individual fails to do so within this time, the individual would be subject to arrest based on police discretion, according to Saltarelli.
The judge sent a letter to state Sen. Chris Jacobs and Assemblyman Robin Schimminger detailing this proposal in March.
He is pushing the change so that people seek medical assistance.
“We’ve had about anywhere between 15 to 17 overdoses from February to April,” Saltarelli said, adding that one person on his street has received Narcan twice within the same week.
A roundtable organized by Common Council President Jenna Koch was held this month with the police chief, fire chief and a couple of individuals from the high school in addition to pastors.
Saltarelli noted that the group came together to think of ideas for what it can do short of the proposal.
One of the goals is to try to get a support group together within the city where people can go. He said that a lot of times, the support groups are held outside the city in the Town of Amherst or Town of Tonawanda.
“We want to start a support group right here within the city to make it convenient for addicts and their families to feel comfortable to go to the group here.”
Another goal is for the City of Tonawanda Youth Board to take the lead in setting up a program to educate parents on what to look for at home, such as signs of drug abuse.
“And also to educate parents that they should be parents and not enablers.”
The city is also seeking ways to distribute information to the public as a whole as to where people can go to seek help, including treatment agencies and hotlines.
A community group is working with the high school to create the Natural Helpers Program. Saltarelli said the program would put older students together to help younger students who may be struggling, whether it’s emotionally or with drug abuse.
This would then link them to adults who can help and build a foundation of trust.
“It gives them a place to feel comfortable without feeling like they’re going to be arrested.”
Saltarelli believes amending the Good Samaritan Law would be beneficial.
“It would put the responsibility back on the person who has overdosed to seek treatment and not just sit there and say, ‘I’m going to do it again.’ You have to have leverage on these people to seek treatment,” he said adding that addiction affects families and their communities.
The Common Council has also authorized the hiring of a full-time narcotics officer.
“We’re a city of 3 square miles, and for us to have that number of problems here within the city, it’s alarming. And it keeps our fire department on their toes because they are the ones here that administer the Narcan.”