As Heroin Epidemic Worsens, Prevention Increases

Due to the rapidly rising heroin overdose fatalities in Monmouth and Ocean County, law enforcement officials are seeking ways to combat the recent heroin epidemic. Christopher Gramiccioni, Acting Monmouth County Prosecutor, said, the efforts that law enforcement officials will uphold include increased education about the effects of drugs while also emphasizing traditional enforcement of narcotic laws.

As defined by DrugFree.org, heroin is a highly addictive drug derived from morphine. Heroin is a “downer” that interferes with the brain’s ability to perceive pain and can be injected, snorted or smoked.

Gramiccioni said there were 57 confirmed deaths caused by heroin overdose in Monmouth County in 2013. He believes this number will probably reach into the high sixties or seventies once the medical examiner completes the toxicology reports, which can take a few weeks to complete. “If you look at the last five years and compare it to the number of accumulated substance abuse deaths by cocaine, opiates, methamphetamines and other drugs, it just doesn’t add up to heroin. Heroin is what is really killing the people in this county,” he said.

According to Suanne Schaad, the Substance Awareness Coordinator in Health Services, Ocean County had a record 112 fatal overdoses in 2013, which has nearly doubled the number of heroin fatalities in 2012. Officials believe the rise in overdoses can be traced to the drug’s accessibility and popularity.

The Asbury Park Press recently reported that two Ocean Township residents are being charged with the possession of 794 bags of heroin which has a street value of $8,000 and $1,384 in cash.

Due to Ocean County having the highest number of heroin-related emergency room admissions in the state and the drug’s increased availability, actions have been taken to allow police and first responders in all 33 municipalities of Ocean County to soon be able to administer an antidote to reverse the potentially lethal effects of heroin.

The Asbury Park Press stated that this $25 nasal inhalant antidote involves the prescription drug naloxone, sold under its brand name, Narcan, which can be used for any opioid drug. There is a 15-minute training program police must complete before being expected to administer the antidote, the article stated.

“It was a bipartisan decision as part of the Overdose Protection Act signed by Gov. Christie in May 2013,” said Schaad. “The amount of overdose deaths in NJ has been called an epidemic by so many that something drastic had to be done to attempt to save lives.”

Gramiccioni said he has been working for approximately three months to get law enforcement access to the antidote in Monmouth County. “The State Office of the Attorney General has been working to deploy it in law enforcement. We are hanging tight and do have a plan to hopefully use it in the future,” he said.

William McElrath, Chief of Monmouth University Police Department (MUPD), said if the antidote is approved by Gramiccioni he would want University officers equipped and trained to use the antidote. Although McElrath explained there have been no recent arrests for possession of heroin or distribution of the drug amongst students, “it would be foolish to think that heroin use has somehow bypassed the University. It’s here just like it’s everywhere.”

Psychology professor Dr. Alan Cavaiola said the Department of Psychological Counseling and Monmouth County Division of Addiction Services are co-sponsoring a conference on Mar. 21 at the University as a response to the heroin epidemic, and he plans to incorporate a Narcan training into the conference.

Cavaiola believes the rise of heroin can be partially linked to prescription opiates, serving as a gateway drug to heroin. He said addiction can be traced to the over-prescribing of painkillers by “unscrupulous doctors,” as exemplified by the most recent arrest of Ocean County physician Liviu Holca on Jan. 24 for illegally prescribing over an ounce each of both Percocet and Xanax.

“But doctors alone are not to blame,” Cavaiola added. “People who are addicted to these prescription opiates will stop at nothing to obtain these drugs whether it be ‘doctor shopping’ (visiting multiple doctors), stealing prescription pads, or stealing drugs.”

Schaad said a problem that arises from prescription pill abuse is its financial expense. She explained that pills such as Oxycontin can cost anywhere up to $80 per single dose when purchased illegally, whereas heroin only costs approximately $5 to $7 a bag. “At some point, for lack of better words, it becomes worth it for some people to switch to heroin for a similar high at a much cheaper rate,” she said.

Lauren Tripodi, a junior social work major and former substance abuser, said, “I was initially addicted to pain killers and, because it’s cheaper, I picked up heroin. When I started using painkillers I told myself that I would never do heroin.” Tripodi started abusing various drugs at the age of 13, but started snorting heroin at age 17.

“At first I snorted the heroin because I told myself I would never be an intravenous drug user,”Tripodi added. “Before long, I was shooting heroin on a regular basis. I was a junkie. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Gramaccioni said, “Monmouth County has some of the purest and deadliest heroin in the world.” He received samples of purity ranging from 45 percent to the high nineties and because of this, a severe addiction for people who use it once or twice become addicted.

However, not all heroin that has been circulating throughout Monmouth and Ocean County is necessarily pure. In an article published in The Star-Ledger, there is a potentially “bad batch” of heroin being sold in Ocean County with a “Bud Light” logo stamped in red ink ontop. Two people have died in connection to the “Bud Light” heroin, and the toxicology tests have confirmed fentanyl in one of the victims.

As defined by The Star-Ledger, “Fentanyl is a synthetic form of morphine used to treat cancer patients, but is also used to increase the potency of heroin, often with deadly results.” Doctors claim fentanyl is 80 times more potent than morphine, and when combined with heroin it can completely shut down the respiratory system of the user. In NJ there have been approximately nine cases of people who have overdosed on this laced heroin. This batch is also branded under other slang names including “Thera Flu,” “Bud Ice,” “Diesel,” and “Coors Light.”

In an effort to combat the rise of heroin, prosecutors are planning to charge felons with stricter penalties, including those who are connected with heroin overdose deaths. In an article published in The Boston Globe, prosecutors are going to enforce the “strict liability for drug death” statute, a first-degree crime that holds dealers and producers responsible for a user’s death with a 20-year maximum sentence.

Thomas Gordon, a senior criminal justice student, said 14 of his fellow classmates at Vernon High School died due to heroin use. Gordon explained most of his 2008 graduating classmates got into fatal car accidents while on the drug. “[My classmates] were looking for a new high, and it [was] cheap [for them],” he said. To alert the community of the dangers of the drug, Gordon said over 150 people marched against heroin down the main roads of his town.

“This heroin epidemic does not discriminate,” said Gramiccioni. “Unfortunately, it prevails in all aspects of the community. It’s easy to come across and it’s cheap, especially because we are lodged in between a large heroin market (between Philadelphia and New York).” Gramiccioni has spoken to schools in the area and will continue to host forums directed at students and their parents to inform the masses of the epidemic as well as to urge anyone that is suffering from addiction to seek treatment.

Cavaiola believes that although seeking treatment seems to be insisted, this idea is faulty because treatment is not readily accessible to addicts. The psychologist further concludes that because of this, these addicts will continue to use time and time again, which will only further worsen the epidemic. “Addicts seeking treatment often have to go through a labyrinth of restrictive company and managed care policies or be put on lengthy waiting lists if they lack insurance,” Cavaiola said.

“I have never experienced anything that made me not care the way heroin did. I became a lying, manipulative, thief who did anything and everything to get the next high,” said Tripodi. Despite the dark years of battling addiction, Tripodi is now approaching her two year anniversary of being drug-free this March. “Life after drugs is possible. I know because it has happened for me and it can happen for you too.”

Students seeking help can visit the Office of Substance Awareness in the Health Center or the Psychological Counseling Center.

PHOTO TAKEN from dailymail.co.uk