fresh voices from the front lines of change







As a New York State Trooper handcuffed me at our State Capitol, I told him, “I lost my son. This is for him.”

Alexis Pleus, founder of TruthPharm, under arrest at the N.Y. State Capitol in Albany

Jeff was an amazing kid, a chef, who was 28 when he died of a heroin overdose. I was willing to face arrest because our elected officials know what they can do to save lives like Jeff’s – but they don’t.

When Jeff was alive, no one told us how hard it is to beat an opioid addiction. No one offered us Suboxone or other proven treatments. No one told us about Naloxone, which can reverse an overdose. Give him “Tough Love,” treatment providers told us, so we did.

Doctors are able to prescribe unlimited amounts of opioid pills for pain, but few of them understand the addiction this creates, nor offer help for it. And none are allowed to prescribe Suboxone or Methadone, which help overcome opioid dependence, without specialized waivers.

We know addiction is an illness. Any patient should be able to say “I have an addiction,” and hear a doctor say, “I have medicine that can help you.” It should be that simple.

After much struggle, Jeff finally got inpatient treatment, but our private insurance tried to send him home after two weeks. He begged to stay. When he got another week, I naively thought that was all he needed. But with less than four weeks of treatment, only one in ten avoids relapse. No one told me that.

Jeff was heroin-free for twenty months before he died. I had stopped worrying. Looking back, I can see he tried to educate me about what he needed. He had real knowledge to share, and we should have listened.

If I could have my son back and give him a safe place to use without dying, I would certainly do it.

Our governor, Andrew Cuomo, touts addressing the opioid epidemic aggressively. One of his recent boasts was ordering insurance companies to provide 21 days of care. But under 28 days, the success rate is still one in ten. So Cuomo’s action doesn’t even move the needle.

Cuomo could take real action to save lives, to end this “raging grassfire” as he likes to call it. He could open safer consumption sites, increase harm reduction funding and access to the medicines that treat addiction.

Instead he continues to support failing old-school styles of treatment, most of which require abstinence from all substances.That is not possible for everyone. Keeping people healthy and alive needs to be our priority. They cannot recover six feet under.  

As another member of our group was being walked out in cuffs, the State Trooper guiding her spoke in her ear, “My family has really been impacted by addiction, I feel for you all, and I appreciate what you're doing.”

The opioid crisis affects us all: white, black and brown, rich and poor, urban and rural. These are our family and friends. We need to change systems if we want to save their lives.

Small steps like the ones Cuomo takes are not enough. Overdose deaths continue to rise as elected officials try to sway public perception that things are getting better. It’s not better.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”

This phrase is etched in stone at the memorial to Dr. King on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.. I visit it whenever I'm there, and remember Jeff.

This is such a time. If we know what we can do to save lives, we must do it - even if it is controversial. The lives of our friends and family come first. We cannot back down, just because the message is uncomfortable: we must move forward with courage.

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