ELIZABETH — Despite a million-dollar ad campaign by the governor, compassionate attention by law enforcement and healthcare professionals, and mounting public awareness — the heroin epidemic keeps getting worse.

In Union County, officials worry they may have the highest death count from heroin overdose in three years.

As of the end of May, 34 people had died of an overdose in the county. Police deployed the overdose antidote Naloxone 79 times. Last year, 89 people died. The year before that, 64 died.

The deaths and Naloxone deployments were mostly in the county's largest cities — Elizabeth, Linden Plainfield — but also in the suburbs, such as Cranford, Kenilworth and Clark.

“If you look at the demographics of the people who are dying, what’s remarkable is they reflect the demographics of the county," Acting Union County Prosecutor Grace Park said. "It’s really throughout suburban and urban communities in Union county right now.”


As of June 2017
Elizabeth - 10
Linden - 5
Rahway - 4
Plainfield - 3
Springfield - 2
Cranford - 2
Kenilworth - 2
Union - 2
Clark - 1
Roselle - 1
Scotch Plains - 1

2016 deaths
Elizabeth - 33
Plainfield - 14
Linden - 6
Rahway - 6
Summit - 6
Union - 6
Clark - 4
Cranford - 4
Springfield - 3
Roselle Park - 2
Kenilworth - 1
Roselle - 1
Scotch Plains - 1
Westfield - 1
Winfield - 1

2015 deaths
Elizabeth - 21
Linden - 8
Union - 5
New Providence - 4
Rahway - 4
Berkeley Heights - 3
Clark - 3
Plainfield - 3
Springfield - 3
Hillside - 2
Roselle - 2
Summit - 2
Garwood - 1
Kenilworth - 1
Roselle Park - 1
Winfield - 1

Park said one major reason why this is happening is because heroin dealers are increasingly cutting their product with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than just plain heroin. It's the drug that killed Prince and other celebrity overdose victims — and is now decimating communities across the state.

In 2015, about 20 percent of overdose drug deaths were attributed to fentanyl, but “in 2016, it’s over 50 percent," Park says. "So we’re seeing much more fentanyl on the street, and it’s really contributing to the number of overdose deaths in our community.”

She said oftentimes people who think they’re buying heroin are actually ingesting pure fentanyl.

“It’s extremely potent and extremely deadly and we’ve seen a lot of cases involving fentanyl. We’re having a lot harder time reviving overdose victims with Naloxone.”

She said the problem is acute even though authorities are increasing efforts to get it off the streets. In fact, “last year we had the state’s largest seizure of fentanyl here in the county: 8 kilos.”

She said to help slow down the epidemic and ultimately stop it, “what we really do need to do is create awareness in our communities. That’s what we in law enforcement have not traditionally been doing in the past but we’re now doing a lot of.”

To address the problem, Park says law enforcement is stepping up street arrests and seizures of heroin to try and keep the available supply of drugs down.

“What’s really remarkable and really troubling is that the more and more people I talk to, everyone seems to know someone who’s an addict or someone who’s recently died of a heroin overdose. We’re just seeing much more of it in the community.”

One program involves using people who were revived with Naloxone to counsel other OD victims.

Her office also launched the Community Law Enforcement Addiction Recovery, or CLEAR program.

“It’s a program in which people can enter into a police agency, surrender any drugs and get some help. They won’t be prosecuted and we’ll get them to treatment,” she said.


Contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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