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ROBBINSVILLE, New Jersey – New Jersey has a predator lurking on its street, and a non-profit organization aimed at taking it out. Ten miles east of Trenton sits the National Center for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of New Jersey (NCADDNJ), a group that has been working to educate the public about addiction and treatment since its inception in 1982. We spoke with Public Information Officer Dan Meara about the state’s drug epidemic and what’s being done to fight it.

“New Jersey has a large problem with prescription misuse currently,” says Meara. “We’ve also seen a lot of overdoses, some of them fatal, due to heroin use.”

Meara says the drug of choice for the state is still alcohol, but heroin is causing a scary problem, so much so that a good samaritan law was recently enacted to put Narcan (or Naloxone – a known antidote for heroin overdoses) in the hands of first responders and parents. The law, passed in 2013, is similar to the good samaritan law just passed in Pennsylvania, but isn’t quite as open-ended. In Pennsylvania, for example, a neighbor could possibly go to a doctor and say “I believe the guy that lives down the street is a heroin addict” and obtain a prescription for the drug. The law in New Jersey is limited mostly to police, first responders and parents. Just like in neighboring Pennsylvania, the law prohibits prosecution of the individual requesting the drug based on their inquiry and obtaining of it.

Meara slightly disputes our noticed theme of states having a prescription use problem, cracking down on it, and people turning to heroin by saying it’s somewhat more complex than just that in his state.

“If someone is already well into an addiction to prescription painkillers, then that may be the case,” says Meara. “But someone would usually need to be well into an addiction to opiates before they started snorting or shooting heroin. It takes a level of desperation, especially for someone to travel to Trenton or Camden or Newark to obtain it.”

Meara says New Jersey has seen the batches of fentanyl-laced heroin in the community. The National Drug Enforcement Agency recently sent out an alert about the drug, warning that the higher potency gave way to an increased risk of overdoses. Meara says it’s been happening in their state at least 2 years. In Pennsylvania, drug dealers developed a marketing trend putting a bad bag in a heroin batch to purposefully cause overdoses. In the average person’s mind, that’s a warning to stay away. But in the mind of someone with addiction, that’s an indication of where the stronger, more potent high can be obtained.

“When it first emerged in some batches of heroin, people were seeking it out,” says Meara. “We’ve seen no more now than usual. From the drug dealer’s perspective, from a business model, it’s not good to kill off your clientele.”

Meara says he hasn’t heard of a surge in people seeking out fentanyl-laced heroin since it first emerged a couple of years ago. Drug dealers in New Jersey rely on outrageous stories and people bragging about their “amazing high” to market their product.

Home to Port Elizabeth, the Garden State is known to have a more potent type of heroin. It’s not stamped on as much and goes through less hands before it hits the street.

New Jersey has enacted needle exchange programs in Atlantic City and Newark to cut down on the spread of intravenously transmitted diseases, but Meara says there has been some funding lost in that program to put more across the state.

“Money has been tight in our medically assisted treatment programs,” says Meara. “It was a 5 year program that wasn’t re-enacted.”

Meara says his program hasn’t seen any cuts recently. That’s due in part to Governor Chris Christie’s advocacy. Before Christie came to office, he served on the board of a heroin treatment facility, and has talked publicly about a friend he lost to addiction. Governor Christie has worked to bring more funding to drug courts the past few years.

For detox, most people go to their local emergency rooms.

“There still is a lot of resistance and not a lot of compliance from insurance companies,” says Meara. “It has been in the news a fair amount. Governor Christie has spoken out. But we need to keep talking about it. The overdoses have brought the epidemic front and center, so we hope to see more resources.”

The NCADDNJ has worked to raise awareness that addiction is a health problem NOT a criminal justice problem. President Obama just recently commuted the sentences of 22 convicted drug offenders sentenced under harsh laws enacted during the “war on drugs”. A war many experts criticize as ineffective.

“We encourage an holistic alcohol treatment approach to the treatment of heroin addiction,” says Meara.

Meara says it’s not just professional strategy, but personal experience that drives his organization.

“We have an advocacy leadership program and a number of employees at our organization are in recovery,” says Meara. “I’ve had loved ones that battled addiction. It was terribly difficult. They eventually found their way into recovery and are now living full, healthy lives.”

Jersey City Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable has been working with the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency to help addiction treatment centers expand residential housing capacity.

Boxing Champ Mike Tyson will join U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman at Jersey City’s prisoner re-entry conference today. The program works to provide addiction treatment and sober housing to its clients. But still, as we know from the 1,155 calls our treatment specialists have received from the state in just the past few months, there is work to be done.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction and needs help, call our 24-hour hotline at 844-470-0410.

Daniel Meara is the Public Information Manager for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence-New Jersey (NCADD-NJ), located in Robbinsville, N.J. He is the editor of the agency’s journal on addiction policy and treatment, Perspectives. He has been with NCADD-NJ since 2002, working to advance its mission of advocating on behalf of people with an addiction, combating stigma, and promoting understanding that addiction should be treated as public health problem.  

Vertava Health provides the most comprehensive addiction treatment program in the country by going beyond the standard 30 day plan and treating persons struggling with addiction mentally and spiritually to break the cycle of repeated visits to treatment. Utilizing our addiction campus environment we have the depth of caring staff, industry experience and clinical proficiency to effectively treat the disease of addiction for life. Vertava Health’ admissions center is trained to assess and place the client into one of the Vertava Health treatment centers across the country within a 1 hour time frame. This speed in service delivery and thorough commitment to the client long term allows the person struggling with addiction to get quickly on the road to recovery and create a life that’s worth living.