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HEROIN: No Longer Somewhere Else

The first of an ongoing series on an epidemic that once besieged the cities, but now deeply affects the streets of suburban and rural New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and throughout America

At Stop & Shop, you only worry about the restroom when you need it. It's like the rest of place: Clean. No mold; no residual smell. Something the Point Pleasant Boro, N.J. store is known for. Even Proud of.

The only "graffiti" is on the light switch; it says "on" and "off." The worst things that happen are a leaky diaper, a locked door, or a line.

On Jan. 10, something very bad, and once unthinkable happened here. Something that's become too common, a symbol of a crisis that's plaguing Ocean County, N.J., plaguing New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the whole country.

Something that doesn't happen in a place so clean.

On Jan. 10, a 42-year-old was found dead here, at the only "big store" Point Pleasant Boro has. The Jersey City man overdosed on heroin, carrying five additional wax folds stamped “Bud Light” in red on his person. 

It was yet another sad case, another horrific way of validating that heroin is no longer the scourge of the streets, the back alleys and the abandoned buildings of the cities.

No longer the scariest drug, heroin is now among the easiest to get. It's among the most accessible; especially the high.

And as it becomes cheaper and more available, it's no longer the problem that's happening "elsewhere." Small towns, big cites, even rural farmland areas - they're all coming to grips with the sad fact that the number of cases in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere has skyrocketed in just a matter of a few years.

In just a few years, the drug's purity has jumped from 12 to 65 percent, according to Al Della Fave, spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office. With it, overdose deaths in Ocean County, N.J., home to Point Pleasant and other seashore communities battling it all, doubled from 53 in 2012 to 112 in 2013.

In the past three years, addicts who could no longer pay $25 a pill for drugs like oxycodone switched to the much cheaper heroin, often sold for $5 per dose in Newark and Paterson, according to NJ.com.

The number of people between the ages 18 to 25 who sought treatment for opiate addiction jumped by 12 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to NJ.com. There were 368 deaths heroin-related deaths in New Jersey in 2011, up from 287 in 2010, according to the state medical examiner’s office.

In the last two weeks of January, 22 people died in six counties in Pennsylvania from what authorities believe were tainted-heroin overdoses.

Young men and women are dying, but so are older parents with small children. People, like the man at Stop & Shop, his body aged way beyond his 42 years, have now become the face of the epidemic.

People who show none of the obvious signs are getting arrested. Some of them work desk jobs for big companies. Or they labor in the back kitchens of restaurants, and they're getting caught, sent off to rehab yet again.

Many of them were the kind of people once repulsed by the thought of sticking needles in their arms. In the autopsies that have become all too common, the medical examiners find needle tracks covering the arms, legs and feet of their lifeless bodies.

"It just takes over the body to the point that the addiction is hard, almost impossible to stop," said Della Fave.

A Problem for every town

It's in Point Pleasant Boro, mostly known by many as the place to stop for ice cream and gas on the way back from the beach. In 2012, 148 abuse cases were reported here. Deals, possession cases happen on the streets of this town; a Brick woman was recently arrested for allegedly having a hypodermic syringe and drugs on Leighton Avenue.

In 2012, Point Boro placed number 36 on list of New Jersey 565 towns with the most reported incidents of heroin and opiate treatment, according to a Patch report.

It's in Allendale, N.J., where a 22-year-old man was found unresponsive in his bedroom on Jan. 4. He was pronounced dead at the scene; investigators later determined he died from a heroin overdose. Two Paterson men who allegedly sold the lethal dose of heroin were later arrested on second-degree manslaughter charges.

It's in Lacey Township, N.J., where a 19-year-old, back in October, was arrested after he allegedly injected heroin while in the restroom of the local county library. The Lacey man was charged with possession of heroin and possession of a hypodermic syringe.

It's in Hatboro, Pa., where a 27-year-old woman faces 40 years behind bars if convicted in the heroin-induced death of her boyfriend, authorities said. 

In too many towns, case after case, arrest after arrest has some connection - however remotely - to heroin. In documents released to the media this week that detail Monmouth County's indictments, roughly half of the drug charges involve heroin.

But the authorities who are arresting those addicted to it, or pushing it, know that incarceration only goes so far. For every one who's arrested, another's waiting in the wings, ready to carry on one of the few industries thriving in an economy that's not.

"We call it, 'Chasing the rabbit,' " Della Fave said.

A week ago, Ocean County had its 13 overdose death of the year. Last year's number of 112 - once seemed implausible, and unbelievable - could very well be topped in 2014.

What's worse, however, is what's behind the numbers: Broken families, eulogizing and then burying another loved one whom, they thought, never would do such a thing. Or they had it licked.

In some cases, the family knew nothing about what was going on until the final, fatal moment.

"He was 90 days clean," said one Ocean County resident, just a day after she recently helped lay her nephew to rest. "That's what makes it more f--d up. He had so much to live for."

Her nephew was a parent, she said. Nothing ever showed on the outside, until November, when he was caught. "Everything was just fantastic," she said.

Through the rehab stint, the man, whose name is being withheld at the family's request, did his job. Played with the kids.

Then came the 90th day. A day that should have been celebrated. Three months clean.

On that day, he was found dead.

At his funeral, there were 250 cars. Lines were out the door at the wake. So much to live for, people say.

"I don't know where it failed," she said. "I'd see him outside playing with the children with the idea that it was going well."

A competitive industry that keeps growing

How it happens no longer matters. Indeed, the old stereotype of junkies in alleys, emblematic of urban decay, is an image that ended with the 1970s.

It's also a drug that's not just injected anymore. Snorting it was never enough, because it was never pure enough. For many, however, now it is.

The industry has become very competitive, Della Fave said. The drug lords of Colombia, Afghanistan and elsewhere have upped the purity as heroin has become more available, and its price has plummeted. 

"The cartels are making it purer because they're trying to be more competitive," he said.

So many will go to any depths to use it. To make a little more money so they can buy it, they'll sell it.

In February, a trio of Cinnaminson, N.J. residents already charged in a string of robberies were charged with armed robbery and conspiracy in the holdup of the Town Liquor Store on Route 130 in nearby Florence. An investigation revealed the defendants used proceeds from the robberies to buy heroin in Camden, officials said.

In the Stop & Shop incident, the heroin was laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate that's as lethal as it is potent. The drug is up to five times more potent than heroin, and its use is suspected in recent overdose cases not just in New Jersey, but also in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, North Carolina elsewhere.

Heroin laced with fentanyl is stronger, cheaper and more desirable on the street, Della Fave says. A user who overdoses can quickly lose consciousness, and stop breathing.

But they use it anyway, because it's the next great high, the next way to raise the stakes when they can''t be raised anymore.

"Once a person injects heroin into themselves, from there on in, they're no longer making rational decisions," Della Fave said.

Addressing the problem, and the needs

There are towns that still resist any connection to the drug, even as many of their own continue to struggle with addiction.

Indeed, Patch's posting of 45 New Jersey communities with the most cases of heroin and opiate abuse and treatment prompted some public officials and police officers to protest, saying the state's data is flawed, or easily misconstrued.

Even some of those arrested in recent months have emailed, or called, demanding that their pictures be taken down. The other guy had the heroin, they'll say. They were just driving the car.

Others say they not only acknowledge what's become, in their words, an "epidemic;" they've "attacked" it.

Like in Ocean County, where Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato has been dealing with it since day one, Della Fave says. In just his third week, back in April 2013, his office dealt with nine heroin deaths in eight days.

In Ocean County, Della Fave said every police chief has signed on to Coronato's attempts to deal with it. In heroin-abuse forums in Lacey and Manahawkin, the seats were filled, forcing just as many to stand. 

In every heroin-related death, a homicide detective from the prosecutor's office is called in to respond.

Having a clean image is important, Della Fave says. But nobody's clean anymore.

"It's here, and it's alive," he said.
Virgil Harris February 27, 2014 at 01:05 AM
Are we shocked by this? Idiots have been using this stuff locally for years. This is nothing new, but let's make marijuana legal! Good idea!
James McElwee February 27, 2014 at 06:25 AM
When will we realize where this problem originated. People get injured from accidents or sports or simple slip and falls. They go the Dr.. The Dr. is paid by the prescription drug Companies to medicate. Too many Physicians are too quick to prescribe hard pain killers like Oxycodone and even Morphin. The drug companys are the Cartel and the Drs. are the pushers. Now the patient can't afford the drug at $20 a pill so they go on the street and use heroin. The lucky ones end up in rehab where the Insurance Company's get their cut of the pie, and if they don't have Ins. the State pays ,which means we the tax payers foot the bill! I don't blame under staffed Police for not being able to clean up the streets. I blame the Drug Company's making astronomical profits off the misery of people in all $$ classes. Look at Philip Hoffman for example! Legislators need to see this and force the Big drug co. to stop subsidizing Drs. and help the people they have strung out on there products!
Mimi Sullivan February 27, 2014 at 06:55 AM
Great story, and sadly what I know to be true in our community. Thank you for reporting on this. Please report also on why one should not experiment with heroin (as you pointed out prescription painkillers prescribed for pain management are often the gateway to adult adoption of heroin use...and so is recreational use of prescription opiates among teens). Also ways to extricate oneself from addiction...programs strategies etc....what to do when you're a family member...profile of an intrinsically good person in recovery. This happens to good not bad people. Local sources of experts to interview are Princeton House and Starting Point.
Dottie Hummel Easler February 27, 2014 at 10:15 AM
It has been in our communities, big time, since the 1990's. My daughter was a Heroin addict, could not find help for her. Schools and Rehabs refused to recognize the seriousness of the drug and treatment. Parents get educated. Heroin and other drugs have been in our back yard or our homes for years. You need early intervention, especially with Heroin, because it is the worse drug and stores itself in our body fats. It's effects stay with us for life.
Lisa Anderson Yoskin February 27, 2014 at 10:29 AM
It still baffles me how anyone could even be so dumb as to use any drug! I'm scared of Tylenol knowing it can cause liver damage!?
Dave S February 27, 2014 at 12:19 PM
This is not a new problem. As someone already stated the purity skyrocketed in the 90s. Fentanyl laced dope killed a bunch of people 6or 7 years ago. This is not some new problem that just popped up. If people are still so ignorant to the situation then clearly there needs to be more outreach and education. Also arresting users for possession, etc does NOT help. This is a healthcare issue not a criminal issue. We need to change the way we attempt to treat this in the US. I also agree that the over prescribing of hard core painkillers is a huge problem and does contribute to adult abuse of street drugs. Most people who use aren't "dumb". They don't usually wake up to a perfect life on a random tuesday and just decide to try injecting heroin that day. These things creep up on you and often stem from an inability to deal with life for a variety of reasons. Abusive families or emotional illness for example. Alcohol is also a drug and can also be abused and deadly just like heroin. Lastly, heroin does not store itself in your fat. It is a water soluble drug and is usually completely excreted from the system within 3-5 days. The drug itself actually does very little lasting damage. Dirty needles and infections and HIV and the lifestyle are what cause all the lasting damage. Treatment is possible and recovery from a life of addiction is possible for anyone.
Deborah Brighton February 27, 2014 at 12:38 PM
We definitely need to EDUCATE everyone on this addiction and disease ... My son is also struggling thru Heroin Addiction, it's the saddest thing, I wish there was a cure... :-\
Gary Akers February 27, 2014 at 03:13 PM
I've been in this paper many times before as an offender of possession of heroin & needles & OD's and it was absolutely heartbreaking for my family to see & witness...let alone deal with in town! The police hated me, people grimaced at me as I walked by & I felt dead inside! However, with a miraculous turn of events Jan 20th 2013 I was granted ONE LAST opportunity to get my life together through a scholarship to treatment called A Road To Recovery in FL and I've never looked back! I have 13months clean, a place, friends, a girlfriend, & a life again! Treatment here is different from NJ bc it's taken seriously & shown to you by example...not dictation! NJ treatments can learn a thing or 12 from how things can be done better to seriously help people see there is life after addiction! There are so many people here like me with well over a year clean living a full, clean life again! To all those who feel lost or hopeless...I want you to know that there is hope! You just have to truly want it... -Gary Akers Jr.
Brian N February 27, 2014 at 03:58 PM
Dajoepa, I'm sorry to hear about your son. I know things can get testy on here sometimes, but sincerely, thoughts and prayers to you and your family. I have a young son and can't imagine what you must being going through.
Shana Marshall February 27, 2014 at 07:44 PM
Some great comments, especially Dave S. To Gary: Way to go on your clean time. it just keeps getting better! I am a certified alcohol and drug counselor in NJ and am curious about what you think is wrong with treatment in NJ.
Barb Rivera February 27, 2014 at 08:45 PM
James McElwee Your response is spot on. These doctors prescribing opiates for pain from injuries, wisdom teeth extraction etc...is where many of these addicts begin their downward spiral. Opiates are Extremely addictive and these doctors need to be help accountable. Now this isn't Every addicts excuse but it does carry a high percentage.
John February 28, 2014 at 07:26 AM
First off , Afghanistan is thee #1 grower of the Poppy and they aren't contracted to grow them for any pharmaceutical company any where in the world. What does that tell you ? Why does the pathetic, left leaning media NOT report that ? Heroin/opiate addiction as an epidemic that's going to change the way we live. What used to be casual pot smoking 30 yrs ago is now Heroin use. People better wise up and be aware of their surroundings because if you don't already it's only a matter of time before you know some one who is addicted and trust me. Those who are addicted will stop at nothing to feed that urge !!
Mae Jacobs-Skinner February 28, 2014 at 08:34 PM
This is truly an epidemic in the making. But it isn't anything new. There is hope for those who have become addicted to drugs, alcohol or any other substance. There is also hope and help to family members effected by the addicted person. The more we are educated on the subject of recovery the better we can help those who have fallen prey to the demons of addiction. As stated on manyfacesonevoice.org web site: "Historically, intense social stigma and discrimination have kept recovery voices silent. Mass media depictions of people with addiction have filled this vacuum, reinforcing stereotypes about people with a preventable and treatable health condition. There are over 23 million Americans in recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs. They, their family members, friends and allies are building a grass roots social justice movement. Courageous addiction recovery advocates have come out of the shadows and are organizing to end discrimination and the criminalization of addiction, and advance recovery-based solutions."
John March 01, 2014 at 12:39 PM
Well said Mae
Stephanie nagel March 02, 2014 at 11:21 AM
As a recovering addict myself I feel this article is dead on. People don't realize that the old "junkie" for what people saw them as, is not the same. You cannot just look at someone anymore and know they are an addict. This is truly an epidemic, and most of the time starts with opiates prescribed by a dr. People don't realize that these pills are just as addictive, and eventually will turn into a heroin addiction. It's cheaper, and very easy to get. It's just crazy how many people will abuse their script and think it's ok because it's their own script. The physical withdrawals make it very hard to stop. You cannot just look at someone and know tgey have an adddiction problem anymore. The guilt and shame will kill someone before they will surrender and ask for help. Instead of shunning these people and looking at them like they are trash, offer help. Yoy never know how bad their problem is, and how ashamed and scared they are for help. I am still on a maintenance program, and people don't consider me completely clean because of it, but it's the best thing I have ever done, I have been clean for 17 months, I have tried to do it alone before only to relapse after almost 2 yrs clean. But the network of ppl I have now helps so much. My counselor is a recovering addict of 8 yrs, and is my rock. I guess my point is, just be open minded, you never know someone's story. They could have been in a car accident, and prescribed pain pills, and it has snowballed into a heroin problem, ect. Most of the time ppl want help but are too ashamed to ask, especially someone who has relapsed. It's not always easy to spot someone who is addicted, it could be a mom, dad, lawyer, teacher, ect. Addiction doesn't discriminate
Stephanie nagel March 02, 2014 at 11:39 AM
dajoepa75 I also go to the clinic wth the park across the street, it's sad. I have to put on my blinders and keep walking to the bus station. I sometimes will make aPhone call, or listen to music, to walk through there. It's because a majority of people going there abuse the methadone, and use it as a back up. That is exactly what gives it a bad name. The staff inside treat everyone like trash because most ppl in there abuse it, an act like children in there. It's sad, but it's what I have to deal with because it works for me. My counselor is fabulous, and my rock.
Barb Rivera March 02, 2014 at 02:41 PM
Stephanie .., So glad you found the right counselor & treatment plan that works for you. Congrats for never giving up and wanting to change. I know it cannot be easy but know your Life and loved ones makes it so worth it. To many people still live by the phrase " It will never happen to me or anyone in my family ".. They are blinded by ignorance. This affects everyone!
John March 02, 2014 at 04:10 PM
Gary and Stephanie , I commend both of you for coming forward and telling your story. God Bless to both of you !!
Mark Guarnere March 12, 2014 at 10:59 AM
Treatment is the best action against the war on drugs. I own and operate a treatment facilty here in Gloucester Township. Lakeside Recovery Center 200 Independence Blvd. Sicklerville, NJ 08081 856-302-1362 www.lakesiderecovery.com If anyone seeks help for an addiction please contact Lakeside recovery center to set up an appointment. We are saving lives one day at a time..

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