By Olivia Winslow | Updated November 1, 2023 via Newsday 

Paulette Phillippe lost her grandson Gabriel to a drug overdose in 2013 when he just 15.

"It was a fentanyl overdose, which was unusual then," she recalled. "We tried to warn people, but nobody wanted to listen then on how strong it was."

Larry Lamendola's 25-year-old daughter Lisa died from fentanyl poisoning in 2019.

"I found her in her room that morning. She was due to go to a rehab stint," he said. 

Both Phillippe, 78, of Mattituck and Lamendola, 65, of Wantagh say they will be among a busload of about 40 Long Islanders going to New York City Thursday for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's "2023 Family Summit on the Fentanyl Poisoning Epidemic," praising the opportunity to interact with agency officials as they seek solutions. The event, the second year it's been held, is to take place at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Lamendola said the summit was "very important to me. I'm big on education and prevention."

Phillippe was pleased that the DEA "reached out to us," providing an opportunity for the law enforcement community, treatment counselors and families to collectively seek solutions. "They’re tired of watching so many of our loved ones die of overdoses. Seeing this fentanyl killing people left and right. And they want a solution too," she said of the DEA.

The bus is being provided by the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, which is to receive a "partnership award" from the DEA at the summit, while it's executive director, Steven Chassman, is to receive a DEA Certificate of Appreciation, along with Anthony Rizzuto, founder and executive director of Families in Support of Treatment (FIST), a nonprofit affiliated with LICADD.

"LICADD and FIST are being recognized by the DEA for doing individual and family advocacy," Chassman said. "We're very proud of that." LICADD, a nonprofit that's been operating since 1956, provides counseling, treatment referrals, family interventions, recovery support and more.

Frank Tarentino III, the special agent in charge of the New York division of the DEA, called LICADD a partner in the agency's efforts to connect with families who've experienced the devastation of drug use like fentanyl, and to increase public awareness about its dangers. He called fentanyl "the most deadly synthetic drug on the street today. It's 50 times more powerful than heroin, 100 times more powerful than morphine." He added it was "extremely lethal in very small doses," at just 2 milligrams. "That's about 10-20 grains of salt." And he said it's often disguised as legitimate pharmaceutical-grade pills.

Chassman, a licensed clinical social worker and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor, said: "I’ve been working in substance abuse counseling for 30 years and the last five years have been the most devastating," pointing to national statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that there were nearly 107,000 drug overdose deaths nationally in 2021, 75% of which involved an opioid. 

According to the Nassau County Medical Examiner's Office, there were 270 overdose deaths in the county in 2021, of which 190 were caused by fentanyl, Newsday reported in June. Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said at the time there were more than 300 drug overdose deaths in 2022.
According to figures from the Suffolk County Medical Examiner's Office, there were 412 opioid overdoses reported in 2022, a 4.6% decrease from 2021 when 431 people died of opioid overdoses, figures show. The majority of those deaths — 383 last year and 399 in 2021 — were linked to fentanyl.

"We're losing a whole generation of substance users right now," Chassman said. He said the reasons were "multifaceted," citing the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, financial insecurity, "incredibly high levels of stress, both for adolescents and adults. I would go so far to say the digital and technological revolution, which has sped up the world exponentially and also given us a front-row seat to war on two fronts, has increased people's anxiety."

Chassman continued: "People who use drugs are not bad people. They're good people. They're just making unhealthy choices."