Buffalo’s Opioid Crisis

by Maximilian Eyle

The City of Buffalo has a fascinating history. It was the first American city to be electrified, mostly because of the hydroelectric potential of Niagara Falls. It was the ending point of the Erie Canal, and in the early 1900s was one of the most heavily populated cities in the United States. During the slave era, Buffalo was an important stopping point for slaves heading north to find freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad. At one time, Buffalo was the fifth largest port in the world. Though its status has declined over the last century, it is still a large and important city in Upstate New York.

Today, the City of Buffalo has an opioid problem. More than one person a day has been dying from opioid related causes, a rate so high that the city’s population would be growing if it were not for this health crisis. Buffalo is not alone in being plagued by this problem, the whole nation has seen a dramatic rise in opioid abuse. Why is this happening? One major cause is that of legally prescribed pain medication. In 1999, doctors began paying more attention to pain treatment and drugs like Oxycodone were more regularly given out to patients. Users who developed an addiction would often turn to street opiates like heroin or fentanyl when their doctor stopped their prescription. These are particularly dangerous because they are unregulated, so their dosages are unknown and they are far more likely to contain other harmful chemicals.

This presents a difficult problem, because pain does need to be treated. Stopping the prescription of Oxycodone and other legal opioid drugs puts patients with severe pain at risk for more suffering, and history has taught us that prohibition does not work well at reducing drug use. After all, heroin has been illegal in the United States since 1914. Over a century later, we are in the midst of yet another opioid crisis. Clearly, prohibition is not an effective solution.

In May, The Buffalo News reported that $1 million had been earmarked for treating this crisis, but that they lacked ideas for how to use the money. Treatment centers and increased policing are the same traditional strategies that have been in place for decades. To attract new ideas, the Erie County Legislature has asked for proposals from the community to find creative ways to address this problem. One proposal from Saint Anne’s Corner of Harm Reduction (SACHR), located in New York City, advocates for a controlled pilot study of medical marijuana as means of replacing opioid use. Their theory is that if patients can use medical marijuana to treat their pain instead of opioids, they will avoid developing the addiction in the first place. This connection has been made before. A study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Medicine showed that opioid related deaths are 25% lower in states where marijuana is legally available. The Erie County Legislature will have to make a decision soon, let us hope they take a new approach.

Maximilian Eyle is a native of Syracuse, NY and a graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He has experience working in the drug policy field and writes about it every month for CNY Latino. Maximilian learned Spanish while living in Spain where he studied and worked as an English teacher. He can be contacted at maxeyle@gmail.com.