Despite the disturbing statistics – three fatal overdoses from Heroin in Somerset County in the first five months of 2013 and 6000 deaths from drug and alcohol overdoses in New Jersey since 2004 – the biggest problem faced by those fighting the war on drugs is the unwillingness of the majority of the community to face the fact that there actually is a problem, according to Anthony P. Kearns, III, Hunterdon County prosecutor
who spoke last week at a community awareness event.
The event was sponsored by the Safe Communities Coalition (SCC) of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, in collaboration with Empower Somerset, the Hunterdon and Somerset Prosecutor’s and Sheriff’s Offices, the Hunterdon Municipal Alliance, the Hunterdon Prevention Resources and Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) was held at the college
with students and community members in attendance.
The event debuted a new documentary sponsored by the SCC titled “Pills to Heroin: the domino effect” filmed and directed by Harry Hillard, a Somerville filmmaker. The film was followed by a panel discussion that included law enforcement officials from Hunterdon and Somerset, two young people recovering from heroin who were featured in the film, and Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, who spoke about the “Good Samaritan Law” signed by Gov. Chris Christie recently that will encourage calls for medical help when an individual has overdosed without fear of prosecution.
In addition to a need for increased awareness about the heroin and opiate addiction
crisis in our region, Kearns said the community needs to understand that this is everyone’s problem.
“This is not just about ‘those’ people and it’s not just out there, in another neighborhood or another family. When individuals become addicted to opiates and heroin, we see an increase in robberies and all kinds of illicit behavior because once addicted, the individual will do virtually anything to get the money
for the drugs they need,” he said.
The film, “Pills to Heroin” included personal
stories of recovering addicts who spoke intimately about the depths to which they sank in order to feed their addictions. Brian Swingle, Flemington City Councilman spoke openly in the film about the struggle he and his family endured when his 15 year
old daughter became addicted to heroin.
n the film Swingle talks about watching his daughter turn into something he could only describe as a “monster.” He said the most difficult part of dealing with the problem was acknowledging how much the drug can radically change someone’s personality that spiral into violent and dangerous situations.
Drug addiction touches everyone
No one knows better than Mike Franks, a resident of Washington, (Warren County), that opiate addiction
can impact members of a community who have nothing to do with drugs.
“I lost my mother and my cousin in a car accident last July. They were hit by a 31 year old man on antidepressants and Oxycontin, “ Franks said.
For Franks, the problem is multifaceted, but at the heart of the problem, is a society that accepts popping a pill for any ailment one might have.
“The new Viagra man is the old Marlboro man, we think that anything can be cured with the right pill. This is where it begins,” he said.
Abundance of opiates
“We are in a crisis situation here and across New Jersey. Most people don’t realize that here in the United States we represent 4.5 percent of the world’s population yet we use 99 percent of the world’s supply of oxycontin, vicodin, and the opiate type of pain pills so the availability and access has increased,” said Leslie Gabel, SCC project director.
Members of the panel agreed that the easy availability of prescription pain killers such as oxycontin, vicodin and percocet are the first step toward heroin addiction. The panel members said, heroin addicts
are beginning with pain killers prescribed directly for the individual or a family member. But once they can no longer get the prescription filled, the individual turns to the streets where the prescription pills become even more expensive.
“Once they hit the streets, for instance, one oxycontin pill can cost $30, but a bag of heroin, which is now more potent than ever, can cost as little as $3 a bag,” said Geoffrey D.Soriano, Somerset County Prosecutor.
The panel engaged in a lively discussion with the audience which highlighted that the current heroin and opiate addiction crisis in the state is due to a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances: easy access to prescription opiates, powerfully pure and cheap heroin, easy access by Interstate highways to the suburbs from urban centers where heroin is entering the state including Newark, Trenton, and Philadelphia and the efficiency of the Internet, Smart phones and even GPS technology since it makes it possible for drug dealers to get in and out of suburban neighborhoods with greater ease.
The panel agreed that the same digital technology that has streamlined all kinds of businesses has also made it easier than ever for people of all ages to gain access to and distribute drugs.
Documentary filmmaker Hillard said he hopes that the audience will learn what he learned during the making of the film.
“Going into the film I was completed unaware of the dangers of prescription pain kills. Never knew there was a direct connection to heroin use. Like so many people, I'd assumed that if a doctor prescribed it, it’s okay,” he said.
Hillard said he hopes that the audience becomes aware of the connection between prescribed pills and heroin or other opiates that we think of as being used by hardcore druggies.
He said, “I want the viewers to experience the emotion of the stories told by the participants, and realize they can take steps to combat this issue.”
Hillard developed another film titled “In a Split Second” which dealt with the sudden life changing impact that drinking and driving can have. That film is currently used by the Hunterdon County courts and plays in numerous high schools in Somerset and Hunterdon, especially during prom season.
Seeking to prevent drug addiction at its source
In addition to urging doctors and dentists to be more responsible with regard to prescription opiates, the panel urged parents to dispose of unused medicines at Prescription Drop-Off boxes in Somerset and Hunterdon County.
Two of the drop boxes are available 24/7 at the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office, 20 Grove St., Somerville and the Hillsborough Police Department, 379 South Branch Rd., Hillsborough. A third drop-box is located at the Bernards Township Police Department, 1 Collyer Lane, Basking Ridge from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Deep cultural changes needed
The panel and audience members like Michael Franks agree, the problem of opiate addiction
in New Jersey and across the country is a multifaceted one that has to be tackled from many sides.
As Michael Franks sees it, the state’s opiate addiction problem is multifaceted and therefore the solution will require changes on many levels.
“The contributing factors range from the prescribing physicians, the legal users that leave the drugs in their medicine cabinets, the pharmaceutical industry that may have to become more aware of its marketing practices and how they have changed our culture,” Franks said.
Gabel said the solution is going to require participation by everyone in the community and she is hoping that as many members of the community including individuals and businesses jump on board to join the Safe Communities Coalition.
If you or somebody you know is dealing with the addiction above, and are ready to change for the sake of family, loved ones, and the friends around you, please do not hesitate to give us a call at 1-800-714-2955 .
For us this isn’t a business, it’s a calling to help fix lives and help others grow in their journey to recovery!
| By MaryLynn Schiavi
For the Courier News