UNION COUNTY, NJ — Gov. Chris Christie has made battling opioid addiction in New Jersey a priority during his second term in office and last week President Trump declared it a “national emergency.”
New Jersey, and Union County in particular, have been impacted by the health crisis for a specific reason, according to one local health professional.
“New Jersey is among the most heavily impacted states,” Paul Lavella Jr., director of alumni services for Summit Behavioral Health, told LocalSource in email on Oct. 27. “Heroin and fentanyl are routinely tracked to have entered into the U.S. from the ports in both Newark and Elizabeth, right in our backyard. These imported opioids are coming in at their purest forms, making them more lethal.”
Summit Behavioral Health studies drug addiction and offers outpatient and residential services to people suffering from addiction throughout New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
In 2015, 91 Americans died every day from the opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lavella said the belief that opioid addiction is a big-city or urban phenomenon is mistaken.
“Stigma and stereotypes surrounding addiction may lead the general public to believe that addiction runs rampant only in urban areas,” Lavella said. “However, we are seeing many people with addiction from suburban neighborhoods, even areas considered affluent, accessing treatment.”
Cranford Police Chief Ryan Greco, who was installed Tuesday, Oct. 24, has pledged to focus on opioid addiction as one of his priorities.
At least 89 people died from fatal drug overdoses in Union County last year, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office stated in a June press release, more than any year since 2000.
Overdose antidote drug Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, was administered 60 times in the County in 2015, and 160 times in 2016, according to the Prosecutor’s Office.
“One major reason why this is happening is because heroin dealers are increasingly cutting their product with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than just plain heroin,” former acting Prosecutor Grace Park told radio station NJ 101.5 in June.
Referred to as heroin’s “synthetic cousin,” fentanyl is commonly seen in two forms, that prescribed by physicians to cancer patients and an illegally made drug sold on the streets.
While doctor-prescribed fentanyl can be commonly abused by patients, most cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose and death in the United States are linked to the illegally made version, according to the CDC.
It can be sold through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effect, and is often mixed with heroin and or cocaine as a combination product, to increase its euphoric effects.
Union County Sheriff Joseph Cryan told LocalSource on Friday, Oct. 26, that the use of fentanyl has increased in all the county’s urban and suburban municipalities.
“As stated by former Prosecutor Grace Park, fentanyl has become a popular cutting agent used by heroin dealers which attributes to a greater number of overdoses and deaths, not only in Union County, but in communities throughout the state and the nation,” Cryan said. “Fentanyl is a cheap, lethal way to reduce the cost of heroin that increases the risk to the user, especially those chasing a stronger high.”
Due to the growing increase of opioid-related deaths, combating its trafficking and use has been an expanding priority for county, state and federal authorities, and Union County increased its efforts during the past summer.
In June, Cryan’s office introduced the Community Law Enforcement Addiction Recovery, or CLEAR, program in partnership with the prosecutor’s office and county police. CLEAR allows residents to surrender small amounts of narcotics without being arrested and gain access to recovery services free of charge.
Cryan told LocalSource that CLEAR not only increases public awareness, but provides an outlet for those seeking help with their substance abuse.
“Local police have increased focus to the epidemic; task forces have been created, and additional training for officers has all occurred,” Cryan said. “So in that sense, I believe we are all doing our part to deal with this ever-increasing problem.”
Summit Behavioral Health also aids with its own efforts.
Heavily invested in prevention, the organization offers adolescent and family services geared toward addressing substance use prior to the problem’s escalation into addiction.
A free, community-based Addiction Family Support Group is offered at four of its facilities, with two in Union.
Summit Behavioral Health also partners with local agencies to support prevention efforts, including Prevention Links, a nonprofit organization based in Roselle.
Many of the services provided by Summit Behavioral Health are based upon addiction research.
“With emphasis placed on finding evidence of how we best help people with addiction stay in recovery, we can prevent relapse and overdose,” Lavella said.