Lethal Weapon: Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan

Outraged at an epidemic of accidental addiction to prescription painkillers that’s causing devastation among users and bystanders alike, superstar narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan takes aim at a surprising new foe: the American medical establishment

by Nanette Varian • Editor { View Profile }
Bridget Brennan Dan Winters photo
Photograph: Opening and portrait photos by Dan Winters

UPDATE: The CDC has just announced that prescription painkiller overdose deaths among women have risen more than 400 percent since 1999 (compared with 265 percent among men). Women ages 45-54 have the highest risk of death.

“Are you sure I can’t get you a soda?”

I’m sitting in the anteroom of the vast corner office of New York City special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan, who is reaching down to a minifridge wedged between the desks of her two assistants. She is one of the nation’s toughest pursuers of drug traffickers, kingpins and gang thugs, but right now Brennan is acting like my Italian grandmother, who never let anyone refuse an offer of food or drink.

“How about coffee?” she continues. “A tea! Water? I know I’m parched.” The second oldest of 11 children, Brennan learned early on to be a sort of third parent: a nurturing caretaker who also knows the importance of rules and proper behavior.

Satisfied that her guest does not need hydrating, she pulls out a ginger ale for herself. We are just back from a press conference in Brooklyn, and Brennan is coolly camera ready in a fitted dark-blue and white-stippled jacket with carbon piping, solid blue skirt and knee-high black leather boots. She prefers vibrant colors but thinks blue is a “serene” hue that photographs well at press events. Given that Brennan oversees some 3,000 arrests each year—suspects range from the most pitiable addicts, who may get treatment instead of jail time, to some of the most vicious criminals imaginable—“serene” seems like a wise choice for her fashion arsenal.

The Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor was formed in 1971 in response to the city’s heroin epidemic, a gritty, violent time portrayed in such films as The French Connection and The Panic in Needle Park. Brennan, 57, is the fourth chief, and the first woman, to run the division. She answers to five bosses—the district attorneys of each of New York’s five boroughs, who appointed her—and supervises a staff of 200.Bridget Brennan photo

The press conference, which was to announce a major bust, started late, and she had a packed day ahead. Brennan spoke movingly about a community “held hostage” by warring gangs. But she checked her watch discreetly; she wanted to get back in time for a strategy session about her newest top priority: the growing crisis of prescription-painkiller abuse.

Unlike the junkies of decades past, the victims of this epidemic are “not looking to get high, and they’re not using drugs as a crutch,” she tells me. Many of them—including a relative of hers who abused fentanyl patches—are instead what Brennan calls “accidental addicts,” people who became hooked “merely by taking their medication the way they thought they were supposed to take it. They had some legitimate pain issue, like a pulled wisdom tooth, but they were prescribed a 30-day supply when they only really needed it for four days.”

It’s doctors who write those prescriptions, and Brennan has the medical establishment in her crosshairs. “We learned that between 2007 and 2010, the prescriptions for oxycodone alone had gone up by 100 percent, to over a million per year,” she says. She pauses a beat. “That’s prescriptions, not pills. One million prescriptions. For New York, a city of 8.5 million people.”

The national statistics are equally alarming. Whereas physicians were once loath to prescribe opioid-based medications such as Vicodin (hydrocodone) and OxyContin (oxycodone) for anything but end-of-life hospice care or the short-term treatment of acute postsurgical pain, they’ve more recently changed their style. From 1997 to 2007, the number of milligrams of opioids prescribed per person in the U.S. skyrocketed by 402 percent. Admissions to rehab centers for painkiller-addiction treatment have quadrupled.

Originally published in the June 2012 issue

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zhang rendong06.15.2012

hmm, so beautiful she is.
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Coco Early06.13.2012

Wonderful, in depth article. As a Twin Cities resident, I believe the issues Bridget has taken on are everywhere in this country; not just NYC.
I applaud Bridget as a dedicated professional tackling tough issues.
She is an inspiration to me and my daughters.
Thank you Bridget,
Coco "Corky" Dugan Early

Rhonda Bayless06.05.2012

This article should scare anyone who reads it!

Rhonda Bayless06.05.2012

I tremble in my boots everytime i read about this issue, because the ONLY people that are affected is those in legitimate, chronic pain that are treated like criminals because 'tylenol' doesn't do a damn thing for the type of pain I am describing. Until this lady ends up in this type of pain, and she will one day, of course she will be treated appropriately due to her holier than thou job of 'busting addicts' which will be exactly who she is when that day comes. Until then, she can be free from feeling any discomfort and sleep well at night knowing she's single handedly stopping doctors from treating their patients due to 'accidental' addiction that folks in her family have experienced. Be afraid, be very afraid. All this does is send people who can no longer obtain their legal pain medications down to the corner to the heroin dealer, because people will do ANYTHING to stop the kind of pain I speak of. If you doubt this, then your day has not yet arrived. Just find one person anywhere who suffers from chronic, dibilitating pain and you will know what I speak of. This lady is 100 times more scary than the worst addicts I've ever assisted in getting help. Her brand of help is aresting her way out of this 'problem', throw away the key then suffer or die, just as long as she can justify her job, and the government subsidized prison system that pays her.


"Wake up. Don't you see whats going on." I hear you, loved the article on the narcotics Prosecuter Bridget Brennan taking a hard line on the Medial Establishment for over perscribing pain killers.
I picked up the June 2012 issue of More Magazine a week after I read an article in the NY Daily news dated, Friday May 18th regarding Mary Richardson Kennedy's suicide.
So much for Law Enforcement to do now adays to have to get into the Medical establishment that all doctors take an oath to cause no harm. So what the heck were the doctors thinking that according to the Daily News, "Her doctors who were well meaning were trying mightily to find the correct mix of medications to help her and they failed repeatedly.", according to her sister Kerry Kennedy.
Granted I don't follow the Kennedy family and I'm not familiar with all the details however the more and more I read articles about people and drugs the more dismayed I become.
The article in More magazine was clearly focusing on persciption pain killers, however the American Citizen has become inindated with drugs. We used to be worried about street drugs, illegal drugs, dealers, influencing children, inner city, and wealthly suburbs. Now if your sad, something tragic happened, it looks as though the first advise given is to pop a pill. What the neck is wrong with everybody. Bad things happen, I'm not completely against medication, but really they are going to have to deal with it a some point, or be on cronic pain killers for the rest of their life.
It seams to me that no one is teaching people that pain is part of life, bad things happen. There are lots of complications out there and everyone's life is different. No two pains are the same. I'm not talking about constant therapy, but I do believe that the painkillers have side effects and the one most alarming is the one for depression that we all see on T.V. One, again, One of the side effects is it may cause people to consider suicide. Come on people. It's too bad the pharmaceutical establichment doesn't have to take that same oath to cause no harm.
I must also agree with Brennan's closing comments that "she won't consider myself a crusader on any issue because I'm always a little skeptical." There are gray areas. The answer is not always balck and white. Right and Wrong. My point is there is pain in life, physical and emotional. Physcial you try your best to fix the problem, emotional you go through the grieving process. It's part of living.

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