By Michael O'Keeffe | Newsday

Relatives of Long Islanders who died from drug overdoses rallied in Hauppauge on Friday to urge state legislators to pass four bills supporters believe will help alleviate the opioid crisis that has claimed thousands of lives in Nassau and Suffolk.

The grieving family members were joined by Long Island treatment providers, lawmakers and law enforcement officials outside the office of Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney, who will travel with the families to Albany on Monday to lobby state lawmakers to approve the legislation.

“We have to change the laws because, right now, nobody is being held accountable for dealing death, which is what this is,” said Eugene Murray, of Lake Grove, who attended the rally with his wife, Susan, on behalf of their two children — both of whom suffered fatal overdoses. “The fentanyl that killed my daughter was a tiny amount but it was deadly.”

Thousands of Long Island residents have died of fatal overdoses since the opioid crisis began in the 1990s, and drug deaths hit a record 109,689 nationwide in 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One of the bills would allow prosecutors to charge dealers who provide illicit drugs that result in the death of a user with “drug-induced” manslaughter. Currently, these dealers can typically only be charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance.

The bill, called “Chelsey’s Law,” is named after the Murrays’ daughter, who died in August 2022 at the age of 31 after using fentanyl-laced heroin. Fentanyl, a cheap and deadly synthetic opioid, is responsible for most of the nation’s fatal overdoses in recent years. Public health and law enforcement officials have warned that dealers are lacing heroin, cocaine, counterfeit prescription pills and other drugs with fentanyl.

“When you buy a [counterfeit] Xanax and it is dosed with fentanyl, that’s not an overdose,” said Steve Chassman, the executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. “That’s a poisoning.”

Chelsey Murray had gone through treatment several times and had been clean and sober for three years before her death, her mother said.

“Coming home, things would be great for a couple of weeks, and then it was, you knew she was using again,” said Susan Murray, whose son, Michael, died of a fatal drug overdose in 2012 at the age of 26. “It is just so hard for them to stop. Heroin puts such a grip on you, there is more to it than going to rehab for 30 days." 

Another bill would allow families who lost children to fatal overdoses caused by fentanyl-laced drugs to receive financial assistance from the state Office of Victim Services for funeral expenses, lost earnings and other expenses.

A third bill would outlaw the possession and use of xylazine except for veterinary purposes. Xylazine, called “tranq” on the street, is also used to cut heroin and other illicit drugs. Possession and use of xylazine is currently not illegal in New York.

The fourth bill would allow prosecutors to seek bail for defendants charged with the sale and possession of large amounts of methamphetamine, LSD and other illicit drugs. Prosecutors could also ask for bail for any cases involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

Officials who attended the rally included new Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine, Nassau District Attorney Anne Donnelly, Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. and State Assemblyman Steve Stern, a sponsor of the four bills. Tierney could not attend due to a family commitment, according to Chief Assistant District Attorney Allen Bode.

“Why does Albany need to hear from these families?” Bode asked. “Because this opioid crisis is an epidemic. It is the leading cause of death for people ages 18 to 50 years old.”

The Murrays said they also hope to talk to lawmakers about making treatment more accessible and affordable. Their insurance usually paid for just 30 days of treatment.

“Addicts need more help, whether you have insurance or not,” said Susan Murray. “They need to be there long term, at least three to six months. You can’t just do 30 days.

“You are just starting to feel better. She would come out and she would just start feeling better, but she wasn’t strong enough. Not mentally. They need more time. That needs to change.”