Nassau County fentanyl, cocaine deaths on the rise

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Lee Kassler, center, and his wife Lisa, right, lost their son Garrett in February to a heroin overdose. (Photo by Amelia Camurati)

Garrett Kassler would have turned 27 last week, his father Lee said during an emotional speech Friday.

During a press conference Friday about the rising number of drug-related deaths in Nassau County, Lee said his son was a typical teenager and had trouble dealing with stress in college.

After being prescribed Xanax to cope, Lee said, the problems began.

From there, Garrett was in and out of therapy and rehabilitation facilities, eating through the Kassler’s savings as he moved from Xanax to oxycodone and finally heroin.

“This was our lives now, but we needed to accept it and find help for our boy,” Lee said. “We learned not to be ashamed, but accept the fact that our son was a drug addict. He had a disease, and we needed to find out how to treat it. The disease not only affects the user but everyone in the household.”

Shortly before Garrett’s death in February, he was volunteering for the county, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano said, and working on a heroin prevention task force.

“We were never ashamed, only proud of him. Only proud of him,” Lee said. “My boy is a human being, just like all of you. If he had cancer, would you be unsympathetic? Would you be more sympathetic? Addiction is a disease; recovery is remission.”

Nassau County Chief Toxicologist Joseph Avella said the opioid epidemic in the county, like the rest of the country, is a growing problem.

“This epidemic is far outpacing many of the other public health problems we’ve seen in the past, such as cocaine abuse in the ’80s,” Avella said.

In the past year, Avella said he has seen a spike in fentanyl and cocaine overdose deaths, often combined with heroin, for a stronger high, Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said.

“Heroin is all about the purity. It’s all about who’s got the best package to sell, and you want the best high,” Ryder said. “When you reach 99 percent purity in heroin, which is what we see on the street, there’s only one way to bump it up, and they mix it with fentanyl for a better high.”

According to a report from the Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office, there have been 30 cocaine-related deaths in 2017 before May 29, and 80 in 2016. Sixty-eight deaths have been reported for all opioids, with 15 contributed to heroin and 32 to fentanyl.

“What we’ve found is of those 30 deaths [connected to cocaine overdoses], in 70 percent of those there was a co-administration of either heroin, fentanyl or some other opioid that increases the toxicity and the danger. While cocaine has always been a dangerous drug, it’s far more dangerous when we start to include other drugs.”

While the statistics for 2017 are slightly lower than 2016 so far, Avella said laboratory technicians are struggling to identify new drugs in many cases, and expects the statewide numbers to reach 22 per capita deaths this year.

Along the North Shore, three overdose deaths have been reported in Manhasset, two in Manorhaven, and two in Floral Park.

Mangano announced the first bi-county Recovery Health and Wellness Expo from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday on Field 8 in Eisenhower Park. Mangano said the goal of the expo is to provide one place for all the information for addicts trying to quit, grieving families and community awareness.

“Don’t be afraid. This is a recovery fair,” Mangano said. “Everyone there is there to try to help you and provide information to you. I’m certain you will find an anonymous place to go and programs where you will remain anonymous. The police are not there for you unless you’re up there selling drugs.”

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