Home News Fighting to overcome New York’s fentanyl crisis

Fighting to overcome New York’s fentanyl crisis

Imagine if an airliner crashed every day, and no one called for stricter aviation regulations. That is the current state of our fentanyl epidemic in the U.S. We are losing roughly 80,000 Americans annually to this epidemic.

Three minutes is all the time it takes before an opioid overdose starts to cause brain damage. Even if the person is resuscitated, their body may recover, but the brain dies. 

One of us knows firsthand just how precious those minutes can be. In May 2021, Ethan Bherwani, Kamal’s son, traveled from Long Island to the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut to celebrate his graduation from college. He was a promising young man — a talented athlete, writer, and musician, with plans to attend law school. 

While at the Mohegan Sun, Ethan met a stranger who gave him a substance that contained fentanyl. Ethan didn’t know fentanyl was in that substance. He didn’t overdose; he was poisoned. 

Around 2 a.m., Ethan collapsed while at the blackjack table. Security footage shows that Ethan lay on the floor with no help for more than 11 minutes. It remains unclear if naloxone — the nasal spray that reverses opioid overdoses — was available on the premises. 

On May 27, 10 days after he collapsed, Ethan was declared brain dead and passed away at the age of 22 at Hartford Hospital, leaving behind devastated parents, siblings, and friends. 

Ethan’s death was senseless and preventable. Sadly, many families across our country are grieving loved ones lost to this imported epidemic. 

The proliferation of fentanyl has led to one of the worst drug crises in our nation’s history. 

Many fentanyl deaths are poisonings, not overdoses. Fentanyl is found laced in marijuana, prescription pills, ecstasy, and cocaine.

Nationwide, fentanyl is now the leading killer of people aged 18 to 45. In Suffolk County, a recent report by the Medical Examiner’s office shows that 452 people died of overdoses in 2023 and 58% of those deaths were people aged 49 or under. That’s almost 20 times the official murder rate that same year in Suffolk County. 

Despite growing awareness of this crisis, the state and federal government are still not doing enough. There are three main parts to this problem — supply, prevention, and harm reduction.

On supply, we need coordinated federal action to go after the sources of fentanyl, where 97% of the precursors of fentanyl come from China. A bipartisan congressional report found the Chinese government is incentivizing companies that manufacture fentanyl analogues — precursors and other synthetic narcotics — despite efforts to curb their sale. Mexican cartels use these chemicals to manufacture fentanyl, which is then smuggled into the U.S. either by foot or mail.

Beginning in 2019, Mexico became the primary source of U.S.-bound illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogue products, making smart border protection measures critical to stopping their importation. The Department of Homeland Security is chronically underfunded and underequipped, meaning we need investments in technology that can identify fentanyl on people, luggage, and mail packages to cut off supply. 

Going after bad actors abroad should be coupled with stiffer penalties at home. The U.S. attorney general’s office should issue guidance to federal prosecutors recommending stronger charges against any dealer who knowingly sells a fentanyl-laced product that results in an overdose.

In New York, a group of lawmakers and prosecutors are calling on Albany to pass Chelsey’s Law, which would allow defendants to be charged with manslaughter for causing fatal overdoses by selling fentanyl-laced illegal narcotics. Under Gov. Hochul’s leadership, the state Legislature should expeditiously pass this bill along bipartisan lines given the urgency of this threat.

Stronger enforcement is one piece of the puzzle. The single most effective and easiest tool we have to reverse overdoses is naloxone. New York State has secured about $2.6 billion from settlements with the opioid industry to be paid out through 2040. This money is being used to fund substance abuse treatment programs and other public health interventions.

The Empire State must do more to make naloxone widely available. In Maryland, state Sen. William C. Smith heard Ethan’s story, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers unanimously passed — and Gov. Wes Moore signed — legislation placing naloxone in AED boxes across the state. New York should pass similar legislation to make naloxone accessible in public buildings statewide. 

Each day, 200 Americans die from this epidemic. These deaths are the result of policy choices. 

Three minutes were the difference between life and death for Ethan Bherwani, and countless others like him. It’s time we acted with urgency to spare other families the same heartache.

Avlon is the Democratic nominee for New York’s First Congressional District. Bherwani most recently was CEO at GCOM.


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