November 27, 2021

Opioid education

It targets kids, but the users are adults

Colin Spencer/Staff Reporter

Cortland Area Communities That Care Inc. director Matt Whitman shows an informational packet on opioids Wednesday.

Christian Moshier felt a sense of unease the day his mother, Nicole Sherman, died in August 2017.

“The whole day it felt like something was wrong. She wasn’t answering my calls at lunch and before I left work,” said Moshier, 21, of Marathon.

He came home to a dark house, just one light coming from one room. Inside, he found his mother on the floor, cold. She had overdosed from opioids, one of six that year in Cortland County. She was 38.

Nationally, people 26 years old and older are most likely to use opioids, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. However, most education efforts to keep people from using recreational drugs target a younger audience, school children.

That leaves a gap between the time a person leaves high school and the likely first use of opioids such as heroin.

“When I heard she was gone, I was pretty devastated. She had gotten out of rehab a few months before she died. She must have gotten back on heroin,” Moshier said.

Sherman showed signs of use, her mother said — frequently falling asleep during the day and changing her eating patterns— but Sherman was in denial and her mother, Karlene Shafer, didn’t know what to look for.

“I wish I knew then what I know now,” Shafer said.

Education and action

Cortland Area Communities That Care Inc. is focusing its education efforts on the 12- to 25-year-old range, said director Matt Whitman, using state grants awarded since 2015.

“We want to protect youth from getting access,” Whitman said. It studies opioid use and prevention methods within Cortland County, mostly focused on people ages 12 to 25. However, the average age of a person admitted for opioid addiction treatment is 34, according to a 2011 study published in the journal “Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention and Policy.”

Where to get a naloxone kit

  • Cortland County Office Building, 60 Central Ave., Cortland, training and kits are available from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays
  • CVS Pharmacy, 13 Port Watson St., Cortland
  • Price Chopper pharmacy, 854 Route 13, Cortlandville
  • Walgreens Pharmacy, at 170 Port Watson St., Cortland
  • Rite Aid Pharmacy, 1067 Route 222, Cortlandville
  • Kinney Drugs Pharmacy, 14 Clinton Ave., Cortland
  • Kinney Drugs Pharmacy, 3666 Route 281, Cortlandville
  • Walgreens Pharmacy, 3948 Route 281, Cortlandville
  • Walmart Pharmacy, 819 Bennie Road, Cortlandville

CACTC does not provide research for that age group, most affected by overdose, Whitman said.

“We’re addressing younger people, as they are the target population for grant funding,” he said. “We still have a ways to go to as a community to address the issue.”

The non-profit agency buys radio and newspaper advertising, and undertakes social media campaigns, to get information to the older audience, the adults, with three core messages:

  • Patients should talk to their doctors about whether an opioid prescription is needed.
  • Getting rid of the pills once they’re no longer needed. Cortland Area Communities that Care works with local police to collect unwanted prescription drugs, particularly opioids.
  • Understanding the need for — and perhaps train to use — naloxone, which stops the process of an opioid overdose.

“It gives people an opportunity to get emergency assistance and then seek out services in the community. It’s all about harm reduction and that’s why it’s so important,” Whitman said.

But more needs to be done for older would-be users, specifically reducing barriers to treatment, Whitman said. “There’s progress being made but it’s a slow process so there’s always going to be a need for more treatment recovery services.”

Practical learning

Participants in the Cortland County Health Department’s naloxone training service range from their early 20s to their 60s, said Public Health Director Courtney McCallen.

“We want people to sustain life and have a better quality of life and having Narcan is one piece of how we can counteract the opioid epidemic,” McCallen said.

The department publishes ads on Facebook and other social media, lists the service — which provides a free naloxone kit with training — with doctors’ offices, and publishes routine announcements in the Cortland Standard.

“It gives family members an opportunity to give someone a second chance in life,” she said.

Classroom to community

Tompkins Cortland Community College looks to educate its students, nearly 28% of whom are over age 25, though most of opioid education is going to students younger than 25.

“You can only educate so much. You have to look at the larger causes of the issue,” like access to opioids, alcohol and drug prevention coordinator Sara Watrous said.

Watrous wants to work with high school teachers to make sure students have up-to-date information, bringing more guest speakers to high schools so college isn’t the first place they learn about opioids.

It also offers naloxone training and recovery programs that address the stigma of addiction.

Yet, while opioids are included in substance prevention education programs at the college, there is no opioid focused education for all students, Watrous said.

“It’s been challenging figuring out how to get information to students,” she said.

Lessons learned

Sherman knew the dangers of heroin when she used, but was in denial, Shafer said.

“She was well aware of it but she thought, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’ She wanted to use it recreationally and as we all know, you can’t,” she said.

Sherman’s last use of heroin was laced with fentanyl, Moshier said.

Two important lessons Shafer learned from her daughter’s use: the signs of opioid usage and who is affected by it.

“She’d be falling asleep mid-sentence and say, ‘I’m just tired.’ We didn’t know and you want to believe them,” Shafer said.

The Good Samaritan Law

New York’s Good Samaritan law protects people from prosecution from most drug offenses if they call 911 to get emergency aid for someone in an overdose, including themselves.

The law protects the callers from prosecution even if:

  • They have up to 8 ounces of drugs, sufficient for an A-2 felony.
  • They have alcohol where underage drinking is involved.
  • They have any amount of marijuana.
  • They have drug paraphernalia.
  • They shared drugs.

It doesn’t protect people accused of an A-1 felony, or with a prior conviction for an A-1, A-2 or B felony drug sales, but it can be cited as a mitigating factor to reduce a sentence, according to the New York State Department of Health.

More than any other lesson local organizations are teaching, the biggest lesson Shafer learned was that opioids can affect anyone.

“It’s not the cliche of heroin addict in an alley. They’re caring people,” she said.

Shafer hopes Sherman’s story can teach others the lessons.

“I’ve learned that I can help somebody,” Shafer said. “I’ve learned that if I can help somebody today, that’s what my daughter would do. I know it.”