The heroin/opioid crisis in Bergen Co.

A report released Thursday, March 9, by Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir S. Grewal revealed a 6.9% increase in drug overdoses — primarily heroin/opioid-related — in the county in 2016 as compared with the previous year. The totals were 308 in ’16; 288 in ’15.

Authorities attribute what they term the heroin/opioid “epidemic” to both “an overall rise in the number of individuals” abusing the narcotics and to “an increase in the potency of the heroin being sold in New Jersey.” That drug, they note, is now “often mixed or substituted with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times more powerful than heroin.”  

The data were compiled by Bergen County law enforcement and supplemented with information from the county Medical Examiner’s Office. “Therefore,” it was noted, “this report likely understates the scope of the heroin and opioid crisis affecting the county because it does not capture overdoses where law enforcement was not notified and where the victim sought treatment at a hospital.”

The relatively positive news in the report was that the number of overdose fatalities remained the same — 87 —  thanks to law enforcement’s continuing use of Narcan (Naloxone), the overdose-reversal drug. It can be administered through injection or via a nasal spray.

“In 2016,” Grewal noted, “we continued facilitating the distribution of Narcan kits to all law enforcement officers in the county. Last year alone, they deployed Narcan on more than 200 occasions and saved 180 lives.”

Addressing the police, the prosecutor added, “I want to recognize and thank them for their work on the frontlines against the heroin and opioid epidemic. If it were not for them and their heroic efforts, we would clearly have lost even more lives.” 

Grewal also cited  an ongoing  three-pronged anti-epidemic battle plan that  the BCPO  introduced last year: innovative criminal enforcement, treatment options for addicts, and educational programming to prevent addictions.

“In 2016,” he said, “we moved away from traditional, large-scale arrests of low-level drug offenders. Instead, we pioneered ‘Operation Helping Hand,’ a program that brought together county law enforcement and county health-care professionals in an effort to offer detox and treatment options to low-level drug offenders.”

Those options, he explained, were in addition to, not in lieu of, criminal charges.

In addition, the county is working on implementation of a program that will dispatch trained recovery specialists to local emergency rooms to counsel overdose victims and to encourage them to seek treatment.

The “educational programming” element features an interactive presentation entitled “Path to Addiction”  to inform students and families of the dangers of drugs.  Grewal’s report explains: During the presentation, which is available on request to schools and community groups in Bergen County, BCPO detectives and recovering addicts and/or parents who have lost children to the epidemic, detail thepathways to addiction and discuss strategies to avoid getting on those pathways altogether.”

During the 2015-2016 school year, BCPO detectives presented  the seminar to approximately 45 freshman classes in the county, reaching nearly 10,000 students. In addition, they gave similar presentations to parents and community groups.

To enhance the educational programming, in November 2016, the BCPO  launched #StopTheODs, a social media campaign using Twitter (@BCPONJ) and Facebook (fb.com/bcponj).

The campaign shares information with the public about overdoses and Narcan saves in Bergen County and includes graphics showing the municipalities where these events occurred, the ages and genders of the victims, and, in the case of a Narcan save, the agency that saved the overdose victim’s life.

The BCPO is also asking the public to share their own experiences and suggestions concerning this issue by using the hashtag #StopTheODs. 

“Through this campaign,” Grewal said, “we hope to destigmatize addiction by mapping the epidemic and showing that it affects every pocket of Bergen County. We also hope to encourage others, including teachers and parents, to use this information to discuss the epidemic with their students and children, respectively.”

A copy of the prosecutor’s report — including details on ODs and Narcan use stats by community — can be downloaded at www.bcpo.net/images/pdf/2016-Report-on-Heroin-Epidemic.pdf .

Karen Zautyk | Observer Correspondent