This story originally appeared in the New Haven Register by Esteban L. Hernandez.
NEW HAVEN >> Alder Richard Furlow felt concern and frustration as he noticed the woman rolling on the ground, under the effects of some sort of drug.
The woman’s condition would have been a personal turmoil if not for the setting: The effects were being showcased in public view, during a festival on the city Green in June.
“She was strung out of her mind,” Furlow said on Monday.
Furlow notified police near the scene, who told him they were unsure what to do. The woman, after all, wasn’t really breaking any laws.
“These are not criminal calls, these are medical calls,” police spokesman Officer David Hartman said. “We don’t arrest people if they’re under medical distress.”
The incident prompted Furlow to seek a wider community discussion on the city’s response and resources for residents with drug addiction and other substance use issues. Furlow’s request for a public hearing on the subject was part of Monday’s Board of Alders agenda. He’s hoping to host the meeting in September.
Describing addiction as a chronic disease, Furlow, chairman of the alders’ Human Services Committee, wants the city to develop a plan to address addiction among residents. It’s unclear how many residents have addiction; according to federal agencies, there are nearly 8 million Americans ages 12 and older nationwide who meet the criteria for an illicit drug use disorder.
“I know this isn’t a new issue, but we have to find a better way of dealing with it,” Furlow said. In addition to the public, Furlow wants to include police, Yale University medical professionals, residential support programs such as Columbus House, and even the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which Furlow said is interested in being a part of the conversation.
Hartman said he understands Furlow’s frustration. In a perfect world, someone admitted into care at a hospital after undergoing drug addiction treatment would be offered additional services, triggering a continuum of care that would help the person begin recovery.
While there are local resources aimed at helping low-income individuals, that doesn’t address the entire addict population, Hartman said.
“It’s a problem we are not arresting our way out of,” Hartman said, echoing a sentiment shared by many in the law enforcement community. “This is not a law enforcement problem, this is an addiction services program problem.”
A week after the incident on the Green, tragedy struck, after at least 16 overdoses linked to a mystery drug in the city left three people dead. The drug later was identified as fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be 50 times stronger than heroin. The string of overdoses led to a community conversation aimed at gathering information on how to combat opioid use. That conversation included members of the state’s Washington delegation, Mayor Toni Harp and Police Chief Dean Esserman.
Furlow said police told him that the woman on the Green likely ingested K2, or spice, a synthetic cannabis substance that the Centers for Disease Control says contains “mind-altering chemicals.”
As part of addressing its addiction resources for residents, Furlow said the city needs to reexamine its reentry process, especially for individuals who are arrested, then released, for charges related to substance use and illicit drug possession.
“We have to address it at a local level, then to the state,” Furlow said, adding that the city needs to examine “how we are dealing with those who have any substance abuse and are being arrested because of their abuse and not being helped.”
Sending individuals to 30-day rehabilitation programs can be helpful, Furlow said, but that should only be the beginning for some people facing drug addiction.
“If we were honest about it, we know that 30 days is not enough time to deal with substance abuse,” Furlow said. “Some people need long-term support to minimize relapses.”
New Haven has received federal aid to help combat addiction, particularly opioid substanceuse, disorderswhich has grown in recent years. Most experts agree that addiction to opioids such as heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone requires wrap-around services that include medication, therapy and psychosocial support.
At least two local medical facilities received funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this year to expand their substance abuse services. Fair Haven Community Health Clinic received $352,083 and Cornell Scott-Hill Health received $406,250, according to agency’s figures.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has urged Congress to pass additional funding to help address the opioid crisis across the country and was in Ansonia last week pledging support for local responders. Furlow said Murphy is one of several community stakeholders he’s invited to be part of the public hearing.
“If we start to look at this as a disease rather than just a social disparity, then we can begin to get people the help that they need,” Furlow said. “I don’t think anybody wants to live like that, where they’re strung out of their minds and have the need to take different kinds of drugs.”