While running in the Democratic primary for state treasurer last year, Greenwich resident Dita Bhargava asked her son, Alec Pelletier, how he wanted her to address his struggle with addiction should the topic arise on the campaign trail.
“Would you be asking me this question if I had cancer? You need to be honest. You need to get out there. You need to bring people to the table. We need to be treated like any other person suffering from any other disease because people continue to die,” Bhargava remembers Pelletier said.
That conversation with Pelletier was one of the last Bhargava said she had with him because shortly after Pelletier relapsed and on July 13, Pelletier’s 26th birthday, he died of a fentanyl overdose.
Bhargava did not win the primary, but has continued her civic engagement in Alec’s name as a local representative of Shatterproof, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending the devastation caused by addiction.
Over 72,000 people are dying each year because of opioids, Bhargava said at a roundtable discussion on opioids with state and federal politicians in Westport Town Hall Friday morning, April 5,where she called for increased funding and action to address the crisis.
U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (CT-4th) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) joined the roundtable and agreed the federal government should put more resources toward addressing the opioid epidemic.
“The federal government has in some ways failed to realize what its involvement should be. It has to provide more than money. It has to provide leadership,” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal decried the “draconian cuts” to veterans programs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, all of which he said are working to combat the opioid epidemic.
More Americans are lost to opioid overdoses each year than were lost in the Vietnam War, Himes said, noting the majority of fentanyl is manufactured in China, with some made in Mexico and transported across the border.
Opioids frequently make their way into the U.S. through the U.S. Postal Service or other private mail carriers such as FedEx, Himes said, adding the federal government should provide these agencies with resources to stop the drugs before they arrive at people’s homes.
The Westport police has seen an increase in narcotics shipped to places in town and the force is changing its mentality to recognize opioid addiction as a disease rather than a crime, Lt. Eric Woods said. The Westport police does not want to “arrest our way out” of the crisis, Woods added.
At the state, level the trajectory of the opioid epidemic will shift when opioid addiction is seen as a disease, state Rep. Sean Scanlon (D-98) said. In the Legislature, comprehensive legislation is in process to address the opioid crisis through programs and funding for early intervention, various treatment modalities and recovery and support resources, state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (D-136) said.
“I am stuck on the fact that there’s incredible social stigma,” state Sen. Tony Hwang (R-28) said, encouraging schools to discuss the epidemic.
“We need to teach our children coping mechanisms,” state Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey (D-133) said, adding the Legislature should fund education for young children about how to manage anxiety and pain so they have the tools to cope without opioids when they’re older.
Stamford-based company Purdue Pharma is the “architect” of the opioid epidemic and should be held accountable in court, Fernando Alvarex, who made headlines in June for placing an 800-pound heroin spoon sculpture in front of Purdue Pharma’s Stamford offices to protest the manufacturing of OxyContin, said when the discussion was opened to the broader public.
svaughan@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1