by Bradley Popkin
On March 31 in the Center of the Arts, Luke Nasta the Executive Director of Camelot Counseling, delivered an emotional speech to students and faculty on the topic of opioid abuse on Staten Island. Also in attendance, and speakers of the afternoon, were Professor David Goode of Sociology, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Cilia, and patients of Camelot.
“I started out as high school dropout from Port Richmond. I’ve lived this and I’ve studied this,” said Nasta, who has been the director of Camelot for 38 years.
Nasta has battled addiction with heroin and has seen the landscape of the borough change. He has been at the forefront of the battle against this epidemic and has been recognized for his efforts on multiple occasions.
“Five years ago, I wrote a letter to the opinions section of the [Staten Island] advance, to parents,” said Nasta. “I said, there’s a new way of getting high and it’s with prescription medication.”
Often misconceived, many teenagers and parents underestimate the highly addictive, powerful qualities of opioids. Essentially heroin in powdered form, youth are taking these drugs and are facing the same risk as if they used a bag of heroin, claims Nasta. The main difference between the two drugs are the after-effects. Because pills take time to absorb into the body, the process of them wearing off is also gradual. He points to lack of concern as detrimental to their children’s well-being. Throughout his speech, Nasta emphasized the importance of owning the problem.
“If you don’t do anything about it, then don’t call me to attend the funeral,” said Nasta. “If you can’t get above this thing, then you will have earned your pains of conscience. In many cases, it will never get better but certainly you have no chance if you don’t intervene.”
The number of overdose deaths have risen and in comparison with other boroughs, Staten Island ranks three times higher in deaths by prescription pills. Between 2005-2011, the island saw a 261% increase in overdose deaths from prescription painkillers.
Nasta brought two patients, Nick and Matt who are 22 and 18 respectively, who gave lengthy speeches based on their history of prescription drug use. Both have been in treatment for eleven months.
“I started using prescription painkillers when I was 19 years old, I was going out with this girl who was messing with them and I was very curious,” said Nick. “First it started out as recreational use but then turned into an everyday thing. I wouldn’t be able to function without it.”
Nick has two jobs and is in the process of rebuilding the relationship with his family. The difference between the pair and their usage is how it started. Matt began using prescription drugs after he began selling them.
“When I was 15, I started selling prescription pills and eventually I wanted to try it out. It all started to go downhill from there,” said Matt. “I’ve been arrested about eight times. I went to jail for a little bit.”
Matt obtained his GED, went to a trade school and is now looking for a job. According to Cilia, there is almost one overdose per week. The problem appears to have found its way onto campus.
“We have a huge problem here on campus,” said Goode. “We don’t get data but we hear stories. I can tell you that anecdotally there’s evidence that shows this is not something that CSI is immune from.”
Cilia has spent over eight years at the Richmond County District Attorney’s Office and has seen a large amount of cases involving possession or distribution of prescription drugs.
“I do see, on a very daily basis, the prescription pill epidemic that is unfortunately here,” said Cilia. “I see doctor shopping cases and a lot of forged prescription cases. We’re working with federal agencies, other district attorney’s offices and the mayor’s task force to work on this problem.”
Doctor shopping is when a person goes to multiple doctors to get the same prescription filled in a thirty-day period. In June 2013, a phlebotomist from Dongan Hills was arrested and plead guilty to attempted third-degree possession of a controlled substance. Christine Oakes, 41, was arrested as part of a sweep of arrests involving doctor-shopping that further implicated 15 other Staten Islanders.
A program called D-CAP, Drug Consequences Awareness Program, was implemented in Criminal Court in 2012. The program targets teenagers who don’t have a criminal history and are being charged with a misdemeanor.
“It’s basically a one day program where [they] meet with family members of people who have died of drug overdoses and from the medical and law enforcement communities,” said Cilia. “A lot of times kids think that this pill isn’t going to do the same amount of damage as shooting something into my arm.”
When it comes to felonies there is the Staten Island Treatment Court Program. Instead of being tried and convicted, an abuser can be referred to either a residential or outpatient program, depending upon the particular person. Normally, a person will start at a residential level and graduate to an outpatient program, according to Cilia. Dealers and abusers can potentially have their cases dismissed upon completion and recovery.
“It’s a big incentive and the alternative is that you go to state prison,” said Cilia.
Nasta has also lobbied for support to open up new residential treatment facilities for the last four decades but to no avail. In the span of roughly forty years, he has only been able to open two programs.
“The community won’t embrace the problem or admit that it’s there,” said Nasta. “They won’t support people like myself that want to save lives, instead they paint me with the same brush as the addict. I’m bringing the problem to their neighborhood.”
Abuse still occurs but not to the same extent. The price per pill of oxycontin, oxycodone and hydrocodone has risen to one dollar per milligram. The crackdown on prescription drugs has led abusers to turn to heroin. Heroin-related deaths skyrocketed 84% between the years 2010-2012. The combination of prescription drug and heroin-related deaths accounted for the deaths of roughly seventy Staten Islanders in 2012, according to NYC Dept. of Health reports.