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Former national drug policy adviser calls for a state of emergency on the fentanyl overdose crisis

Deborah Leach the Addiction Services Outreach Supervisor for Monroe County stocks Naloxone at Nick's Super Stone on Monroe Ave. in Rochester. The store is in a high opioid use area and one of the business that provides the community access to the counties free Naloxone to reverse the deadly effects of opioids.
Max Schulte
Naloxone can reverse the deadly effects of opioids.

While the number of overdose deaths across the nation are leveling off, New York state numbers are steadily increasing. Officials have said more drugs are being laced with fentanyl and have become more deadly.

“The drugs are lethal. They're highly effective. They really grab control of people, but fentanyl will kill you,” said Robert Kent, former general counsel for the White House office of national drug control policy.

As a self-proclaimed “harm reductionist,” Kent said the lack of support and urgency from state government around harm reduction programs is troubling.

“We're in a crisis, people are dying, and it's everybody,” he said. “It's every kind. It cuts across every demographic. And there's no urgency.”

According to the state’s office of addiction services and support, fentanyl related overdose deaths increased by more than 120% from 2018-2022. A similar trend is playing out in Monroe County. Opioid overdoses killed 346 people last year, an almost 14% increase from the year prior, when the county saw 293 fatal overdoses.

Kent said the government needs to direct more money to creating recovery centers and housing, and to hiring more staff for existing harm reduction programs.

He is urging Gov. Kathy Hochul to declare a state of emergency around the overdose crisis.

“Our best hope is to take a public health approach to this overdose epidemic, just like we did with COVID,” he said.

Kent believes lawmakers need to be brave enough to advocate for safe consumptions sites. The facilities are often highly controversial, yet research has shown them to be effective, he said.

“I just think we don't have a choice at this point,” Kent said about overdose prevention centers. “Do I love that we need them? No, I don't. But I don't love this many people dying from an avoidable consequence.”

Despite the challenges, Kent said he is still optimistic that the government and the people can work together to make things better, but it will take some time.

“I'm hopeful but I'm not blind,” Kent said. “I know it takes advocacy and effort.”

Racquel Stephen is WXXI's health, equity and community reporter and producer. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.