CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. - The opioid epidemic has not slowed in 2017. So far, Erie County suspects more than 200 people have already died due to overdoses this year, a steady pace of about one death per day.
The vast majority of these deaths, according to the county's Department of Health, involve a highly-potent drug named fentanyl. Intended as a prescription pain medication, fentanyl is often laced in heroin, resulting in disastrous consequences.
Law enforcement and district attorneys have fentanyl on their radar, of course, but they sometimes cannot prosecute dealers because of a major loophole in fentanyl classifications. A minor tweak to the drug creates a new derivative, which is not technically illegal under state law.
On Thursday afternoon, Gov. Cuomo visited the State Police Barracks in Cheektowaga to announce a plan to close this loophole.
The governor demanded state lawmakers pass legislation to classify 11 fentanyl derivatives as "Schedule One" drugs at the state level, for the explicit purpose of giving law enforcement and prosecutors more power to go after drug dealers and manufacturers.
"You ask the police in Erie County today, you ask the police all throughout the state, and they'll tell you it's fentanyl they're fighting," Cuomo said. "It's fentanyl that is killing our young people."
Gov. Cuomo also alluded to legislation that would close a similar loophole for synthetic marijuana derivatives, but fentanyl is even more dangerous, he said.
The governor will need to unite both the Senate and Assembly, which were unable to find common ground on a similar bill earlier this year. A bill sponsored by State Senator Chris Jacobs (R-Buffalo), which would have added six fentanyl derivatives to the controlled substance schedule, passed the Senate unanimously in June but went nowhere in the State Assembly.
Jacobs attended the governor's press conference on Thursday, along with four other state legislators (two Republicans and two Democrats) from Western New York.
He implored the Democratic-controlled Assembly to consider the more comprehensive bill introduced by the governor.
"We need to make sure the Assembly passes it as well," Jacobs said. "We've had real problems in the Assembly passing any laws to be tougher on drug dealers and heroin dealers and fentanyl dealers."
However, Assemblyman Sean Ryan (D-Buffalo) said after the governor's event that he believes Assembly leaders will be receptive to Gov. Cuomo's proposal. Ryan pointed out that the Assembly took up a bill three years ago to deal with synthetic marijuana.
The drugs are simply changing too fast, he said, which is making it easier for dealers to create derivatives that helps them avoid prosecution.
"We think we solve problems, but the street chemists are often one step ahead of us, making these very subtle changes," Ryan said. "So we hope to get 10 steps ahead of them and stay in front of them."