Outgoing DEA chief paints bleak picture of opioid crisis

New Haven — Chuck Rosenberg, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, knows big numbers can be hard to comprehend.

That’s especially true of drug overdose deaths, he told an audience of police officers, medical personnel, judicial officials, students and educators at Yale University on Friday.

So he has been using analogies.

In 2014, when 47,000 people died after overdosing, he noted it was more than had died in car crashes and fires combined. “That seemed incredible to me,” he said.

The year 2015 brought 52,000 deaths, so he changed the analogy.

Remember June 2016, Rosenberg asked, when a 29-year-old opened fire at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 people? Imagine that happening every morning, afternoon and night for 365 days, he said. That’s about how many people died from fatal overdoses in 2015.

Then 2016 came, and with it, 64,000 overdoses.

“I’m out of horrific analogies,” Rosenberg said during his keynote speech at an event dubbed The Opioid Crisis in Connecticut. It was cosponsored by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Yale Law School.

The Friday appearance was Rosenberg’s last in this capacity, as he on Tuesday announced he would be resigning from the DEA. He's convinced that President Donald Trump has little respect for the law, according to The New York Times, and he would rather not operate in that environment.

On his way out, Rosenberg doled out several pieces of advice for dealing with the opioid crisis, which has been made worse by the incredibly strong and cheap fentanyl. At one point, Rosenberg noted that Norwich is among the state’s hardest hit communities.

Indeed, Norwich residents are on track to comprise almost 41 percent of this year’s fatal overdoses in southeastern Connecticut. In other words, about 38 people from Norwich may die from overdosing this year.

Many states, Rosenberg pointed out, have prescription drug monitoring systems. But often the use of those systems is voluntary, meaning not all doctors check to see whether their patients have filled multiple opioid prescriptions of late.

“We need uniform access, uniform rules and everyone to participate,” Rosenberg said of the systems. “I think that’s absolutely crucial, and I think it’s something the federal government can do ... if it so chooses.”

Rosenberg suggested physicians should be subjected to continuing education so they can learn how opioid addiction affects people’s brains. He implored parents, too, to talk with their children about how pills that may seem harmless can change their lives forever.

He emphasized that four out of five people using heroin started with prescription pills, a majority of which were legally obtained. And he pointed out that it isn’t even known how many people are overdosing and then being saved by naloxone.

“This cuts across every demographic we have,” Rosenberg said of opioid addiction.

More than anything, Rosenberg urged a change in culture — one he said must begin with education.

“When did we get it into our brains that we have to always eliminate pain?” he asked.

An emotional panel consisting of four mothers followed Rosenberg’s speech. The ladies were part of a larger effort called the Heroin Education Action Team, or HEAT, which consists of family members of overdose victims whose goal is to appear at every high school in Connecticut.

On Friday, the women’s sole common thread was that they all had lost a child to overdose, but they shared more than that.

Some of the women are in the medical or law professions. Many believe they should have noticed their kid’s addiction sooner. Most described their children as athletic and outgoing. And all spoke of having hope in the weeks and months before their children died.

In a gut-wrenching tale, one of the moms, Martha Galligan, spoke about how her daughter had gotten her life on track enough that Galligan allowed her to move back in with her boyfriend and child. Then her daughter overdosed while Galligan was at work, accidentally landing on and fatally smothering Galligan’s grandson.

The crowd audibly gasped as Galligan finished her story.

“God bless the moms and dads who are here and are willing to tell stories about their son or their daughter,” Rosenberg said before the panel. “I can’t imagine that kind of pain.”

l.boyle@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the agencies that cosponsored the event.

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