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Opioids in your property

Vigilance and compassion are key

By John Salustri

No one is immune. Opioid abuse has entre to every family, every business, every building. Property managers, of course, are charged with the safe, clean management of their clients’ assets, and the first line of defense here is vigilance.

Opioid use is property specific, says Rick Minerd, the Columbus, Ohio-based business development manager and consultant at Safe Passage Consulting. (IREM members might recall that Safe Passage representatives spoke at last year’s Global Summit in San Francisco, where they addressed the topic of active shooters.)

But he is quick to add that categorization is tough, and broad-brush assumptions are dangerous. Street-level drugs might be seen more frequently in retail settings, where there’s high turnover, or in areas of lower economic advantage. Office settings might be more prone to abuse of alcohol and prescription meds. “Age, social status, economics and even life priorities all play a part,” says Minerd, who has 29 years of law enforcement behind him.

But abuse is not always a case of addiction or a crime of profit. “Someone goes to the dentist and comes back with a prescription,” he says. “The person they’re sitting next to might have a headache, and—we see this all the time—someone shares their prescription medications with someone else in the office. People don’t realize that this is also illegal.” (See sidebar below.)

Taking a broader view

Minerd suggests that it’s unwise to silo opioids out in terms of an abuse crisis. “The best way to look at it would be through the broader lens of substance abuse and addiction,” Minerd says. “Twelve percent of kids throughout the country live with a parent who suffers from some type of substance abuse, whether it’s drugs or alcohol.”

In buildings of multiple access, whether it’s an office, retail setting or multifamily property, there are physical signs of issues, especially when it comes to opioids. Stairwells, restrooms and parking lots are always primary points of illicit activity, he says, and there are signs that can indicate trouble at a property. Paraphernalia left behind in any of those places and the presence of people or vehicles that don’t belong on the premises can all be signs of trouble.

Start—but don’t stop—with security

Whatever the drug of choice, Minerd says that a strong security strategy, starting with cameras, lights and alarms, in addition to a physical human presence, is key. But security alone isn’t enough. Policy development is also needed. “We work with companies all the time to develop protocols for dealing with abuse and prevention from a human resources perspective as well as a security perspective,” he says. Even a concierge can serve as a first line of defense. “Greeting people with a ‘May I help you’ oftentimes makes all the difference in creating a safe environment.”

Andrew Swinkoski, ARM, LEED® Green Associate™, knows first-hand what to look for. His career has been built in Section 8 government-subsidized housing, and he specializes in “managing troubled assets,” he says. Before he started his own firm, he was managing a property in the Midwest, in which he found drugs in most units. “It’s not uncommon from my experience.”

There’s significant irony in that statement, an irony that also folds into a scenario that demonstrates the need for compassion—a subject we’ll explore shortly.

Swinkoski expands on Minerd’s observation by distinguishing between use and sale. Addiction in your community, he says, is a much more difficult situation to detect than dealing. If someone is selling, Swinkoski agrees with Minerd: “You can identify that from traffic, security cameras, complaints from residents and the local community, as well as unit inspections,” he says. “Generally, the majority of the time, the neighbors know and file complaints in the office.”

“The person they’re sitting next to might have a headache, and—we see this all the time—someone shares their prescription medications with someone else in the office.”

—Rick Minerd, Safe Passage Consulting

Annual unit inspections, required for government-subsidized housing, are scheduled and as such can be less effective in cases of abuse than surprise inspections. Nevertheless, in his experience, he has come across prescription bottles with the labels removed and large amounts of pills in bags, both major indicators.

And that’s when the authorities get involved. “Then, you have to call the police, who’ll confiscate the drugs and search the unit,” he says. Under regulations spelled out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “that leads to filing eviction paperwork immediately.”

But use is a more delicate situation. “It’s tricky,” says Swinkoski, who today is founder and managing partner of Integra Affordable Management, LLC, in Chicago. “If someone in your property is using, the best thing is to have resources and literature available along with community contacts they can reach out to.”

But, Swinkoski continues, he is bound by Fair Housing regulations, and any help he might offer “cannot go above and beyond what I would do for everyone else. I have to be able to give it to everybody. That’s a sensitive issue.”

“It opened my eyes and my understanding of what people and communities go through when there’s that sort of addiction.”

—Andrew Swinkoski, ARM, LEED® Green Associate™, Integra Affordable Management

A different kind of firsthand perspective

Swinkoski, who is also an ARM representative governing councillor and serves on IREM’s Legislative and Public Policy Board, knows whereof he speaks. In 2015, after handling drug issues in the properties he managed, he was struck by a car, and then run over, while on his motorcycle. He spent almost three years in the hospital.

“As I awoke from a coma, I found they were giving me massive amounts of opioids and other pain medications,” he recalls. These included propofol, the same drug that is reported to have contributed to the death of Michael Jackson.

“Doctors prescribed strong pain medications, which interact with your system,” Swinkoski recalls. Even though the effects are short-lasting, the feeling of alleviating pain “is something you begin to look forward to. It continues to build, and eventually you start wanting pain meds when you’re not even in pain.” It even begins to trick the mind into believing you’re in pain, he adds.

Realizing he was on a dangerous path, he consulted with his doctors. “We had a long meeting, and we decided that we were going to gradually decrease the dosage and the frequency.”

Gradually decreasing the potency of medication made him feel like he wasn’t taking anything at first. “My body had become accustomed to the same dosage for years.”

Swinkoski made another important decision in the hospital. That was when “the idea and the concept of Integra occurred. The company was formed and the groundwork was done remotely from the hospital bed.”

The process of detoxification wasn’t easy or short. But today, he reports he takes no meds whatsoever, a rare occurrence for people in his situation. The company he launched manages Section 8 housing. “It’s going fantastically. We have 18 properties spread throughout the country, with more to come.”

He took something else with him when he left the hospital: “It opened my eyes and my understanding of what people and communities go through when there’s that sort of addiction. It allows you to pick up on certain behaviors you wouldn’t otherwise notice.”

Vigilance is key. But vigilance with compassion, as Swinkoski says, allows managers to see the human side of the problem.

An opioid primer
More than 10 million Americans older than 11 misused opioids in 2018, according to a recent CNN report. That includes 9.9 million users of prescription pain relievers and more than 800,000 heroin users.

Heroin is an opiate, a class of drugs naturally derived from the poppy plant, which also includes morphine and codeine. Opioids refers to all drugs, natural and concocted in a lab, that, says the Center on Addiction, “bind to the brain’s opioid receptors, the parts of the brain responsible for controlling pain, reward and addictive behaviors.”

So while all opiates are opioids, not all opioids are opiates. The larger category also includes synthetics such as prescription painkillers hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (OxyContin), as well as fentanyl and methadone, according to the Center.

The Center makes it clear that natural does not mean safer. Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the latest statistics reveal that: More than 70,000 “drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in 2017. The age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths increased significantly by 9.6% from 2016 (19.8 per 100,000) to 2017 (21.7 per 100,000). Opioids—mainly synthetic opioids (other than methadone)—are currently the main driver of drug overdose deaths. Opioids were involved in 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017 (67.8% of all drug overdose deaths).”

The CDC estimates that the economic toll comes to $78.5 billion annually, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice involvement.

The critical issue, of course, is not so much in definitions as much as what’s being done about it. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is focusing on five priorities: Improving access to treatment and recovery services;

  • Promoting use of overdose-reversing drugs;
  • Strengthening our understanding of the epidemic through better public health surveillance;
  • Providing support for cutting-edge research on pain and addiction; and
  • Advancing better practices for pain management.

Maggie Callahan

John Salustri is a contributing writer for JPM®.

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