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FBI Agent and Panel Discuss Combatting CT’s Opioid Epidemic at CCSU

by Kristina Vakhman

Fighting a battle against prescription drugs was something Federal Bureau of Investigation Agent Charles Grady never thought he would do in his 21 years of law enforcement.

In the earliest years of his career, Grady and his fellow agents were cracking down on the rampant drug trade in Connecticut’s streets. It contributed largely to inner-city violence, making its termination a high priority. Grady celebrated when he confiscated his first kilo of cocaine and, back then, he cared little for drug addicts.

“As a law enforcement person, I had the attitude that so many law enforcement people had, which is that, if you are an addict, shame on you. I have no sympathy for you,” Grady told the crowd at Central Connecticut State University’s “Chasing the Dragon” event. “We were tired of chasing drug dealers and getting drugs off of the street, but it’s a supply-and-demand thing, so we were really aggravated that people were this addicted.”

However, this view changed when Grady discovered street-sold heroin, cocaine, and other hard drugs were not the most potent problem.

“It wasn’t until I realized that there were certain drugs that were manufactured, that manipulate the human brain to a point where you are left believing that the only way you can breathe is to have that drug. Opiates are one of those drugs,” said Grady.

Last year, Connecticut saw close to 1,000 fatal overdoses, according to chief medical examiner, Dr. James Gill. Close to half of these deaths were attributed to a prescription painkiller containing fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that has a high risk for addiction and dependency. It it sometimes laced with heroin; nearly a quarter of last year’s drug-related deceased had both substances in their systems.

Fentanyl is not the only culprit. Other over-the-counter medicine like Percocet and OxyContin are contributing to the devastation. The epidemic is only growing in the state of Connecticut, yet many are unaware. Grady has taken it upon himself to reach out to the Connecticut community to draw awareness to this issue.

At CCSU, Grady presented “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict.” The 45-minute documentary is the joint project of the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency, aimed at educating students and young adults about the dangers of addiction. Followed by the documentary, many speakers shared the experiences of several recovering drug addicts and showcases the horrible effects of drug use, such as the fact that overdoses kill about 46,000 people a year.

After the viewing, Grady welcomed the crowd to direct questions at him and his invited panel. The panel consisted of Maks Danilin, recovering addict and worker at a substance abuse clinic; Debbie Komoroski, former DEA agent and pharmacist; Robert Lawlor, drug intelligence officer for the Connecticut High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program; and Dr. Richard Kamin, Emergency Medical Services director at the University of Connecticut Health Center and the Department of Public Health.

Many of the questions tackled what caused the prescription opioid epidemic in the first place and what initiatives can be taken to combat it.

“About 20 years ago, an enormous amount of emphasis got placed on treating people’s pain and quite a bit of pressure to make sure physicians and providers make sure they were addressing people’s pain correctly,” said Kamin, starting the discussion. “Pharmaceutical companies, in my opinion, took advantage of the fact that there was a shift in clinical practice to try to address the perceived lack of attention to people’s care.”

Kamin furthered his explanation and added that the “here’s your prescription” custom has become highly unsafe and too accepted, both non-medically and medically. It leads to inappropriate prescription practices, where doctors will prescribe more than what a patient requires. In Connecticut, steps are being taken to combat this.

“It’s no longer as simple as it used to be to prescribe large amounts of prescription pain medicine,” Kamin said. “I honestly believe, as a physician, that all of it is poison. Everything that I prescribe has a great potential to hurt you. The amount of narcotics that I write is always incredibly small and focused. I’m the jerk that will write you for, like, three tablets and send you away. Someone looks down and says ‘three?’ and I’m like, ‘yea, cause three’s all I think you’ll need’.”

“He slipped on ice and broke his arm and went to the emergency room,” Komoroski recalled about her son while he was in graduate school. “I said, ‘how many pills did the doctor dispense to you?’ ‘120.’ 120 Hydrocodone pills prescribed to a 23-24-year-old kid. If he had taken all of those drugs and everything that was in that bottle, it’s very likely that he would’ve been addicted because after a certain time period, your body becomes physically addicted. We need to address this.”

“There are state regulations, state statutes and federal regulations that are limiting the amount of opiates that an emergency room can prescribe,” said Komoroski. “The only challenge is, although there are limits, the law still says that if a doctor thinks you need more, they can write whatever they want. So, we need to educate prescribers and pharmacists more about what the consequences are.”

Lawlor then joined the conversation, talking about the drug trends in the streets and noting how fentanyl is being pressed to replicate other substances. Those who mix the fentanyl are not “professionals” and “don’t know how much to put into the pill,” significantly increasing the risk for an overdose. He also spoke on marijuana.

“I find this great — some of you may not — but, thankfully, the legislature here in Connecticut have decided that they were not going to legalize marijuana for recreational use. I’ve probably interviewed thousands of people who are drug addicts and they all pretty much started out smoking weed,” said Lawlor.

Danilin is one of those thousands of people. Though it has now been five years since he has touched opioids and any other harmful substances, he still remembers the horrific consequences of using them.

“Once you do an opiate, weed won’t top it,” said Danilin. “There’s no other drug like it. Everything — my schooling, my friends, my appearance, my self-worth — everything gets put to the side because all you’re trying to do is attain that ‘one more time.’ It cost me a lot.”

Lawlor summed up the discussion by addressing what additional assistance can be provided to those suffering from a drug addiction while incarcerated.

“I think when people do have addiction issues and are sent to jail, the Department of Corrections needs to do a better job getting them services while they’re in there, whether it’s getting them into treatment programs, detoxing them or getting them some medical treatments and therapy,” said Lawlor. “We, on the law enforcement side, have realized that just locking up the addict doesn’t work.”

The Student Wellness Services Wellness Education on campus is available to provide resources regarding alcohol, drugs and suicide prevention for students and family members. The office is open Monday through Friday from 9 to 5 p.m. in Carroll Hall room 247.