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Meeks, advocates call for bold action to tackle opioid epidemic

Jul 26, 2021

Assemblymember Demond Meeks addresses the press at a 2021 news conference on Ormond Street.
Credit James Brown / WXXI News

Assemblymember Demond Meeks, and a group of community activists, are calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to take bold action to stem the opioid crisis. 

During a news conference Monday, Meeks, a Democrat from Rochester, said overdose deaths are often overlooked. 

“We have issues in this community that have been plaguing us for some time,” said Meeks. “We heard about the ills as it relates to violence in the Rochester community. But one of the things we don't talk much about is the overdoses.”

Monroe County’s Heroin Task force data show that there were roughly 700 overdoses in Monroe County last year, 137 of those incidents ended in death. Those numbers are slightly down from 2019. In 2021, taskforce data shows 330 so far, with 72 fatalities. The vast majority of these incidents were in the city of Rochester.

Meeks said these numbers show that the current course isn’t working, and there is need for “bold government solutions to do what’s right by the community.” He said we have to focus on harm reduction services, treatment and compassion. 

“Now is the time for elected leaders that have the political will, to do everything that we possibly can,” said Meeks. 

County Legislator Rachel Barnhart agreed with his sentiment. She said the public refuses to see opioid addicts as people and that’s stopping the community from taking the necessary steps to stop the crisis. 

“They’re scapegoats, they’re objects of derision, they’re political props and villains,” said Barnhart. “We need to get over this or we’ll never solve this.”

Both Meeks and Barnhart are throwing support behind the creation of overdose prevention centers. In those centers, people would be able to use drugs with clean needles without legal consequences. Both lawmakers said these centers could save lives. 

The executive director of an advocacy organization called No OD NY, Ryan Thorsren Carson, said he’d like to see these centers in every city in the state. He also did not know how much these centers would cost to operate. 

“We've never done one in the country before. And so in terms of an exact dollar amount, you know, we're actively negotiating with the governor's office on these facilities,” said Thorsren Carson. 

Meeks said the $1.1 billion that New York is due to receive as part of an opioid settlement would likely pay for the facilities.

A bill creating these centers was introduced during this year’s session but not yet been voted on. 

Meeks and advocates who held a news conference in Rochester on Monday are also calling for Cuomo to sign a package of legislation into law by the end of August. The bills decriminalize syringes commonly used with hard drugs, add medication assisted drug treatment in jails, and allow Medicaid to pay for some forms of drug treatment without prior authorization.

Locally, the advocates would like to see the city of Rochester’s Person in Crisis team and the county of Monroe’s FIT team work together to respond to mental health and overdose calls.