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.
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.