5 key things we learned about heroin in NJ Thursday
New Jersey 101.5 and NJ1015.com held a special, live town hall and simultaneous live chat Thursday evening — focusing on opiate addiction and treatment in New Jersey.
It's no secret heroin's been taking over New Jersey — and law enforcement programs alongside recovery efforts have been challenged to push it back.
In 2014, there were 781 heroin-related overdose deaths in New Jersey, according to data by the state Department of Criminal Justice. That’s more than twice as many as in 2010. The antidote Narcan was deployed more than 1,000 times that year — sometimes, several times to the same person.
But the use of heroin and other opiates continues to defy expectations. It's growing use in suburbia means its finding users you wouldn't expect — and presenting challenges beyond those New Jersey has ever faced before.
Here's some of what we learned, with the help of former Gov. Jim McGreevey, NJ Acting Human Services Commissioner Elizabeth Connolly, recovering addicts Daniel Regan and Carolyn Krug, representatives of Carrier Clinic and the Center for Addiction Recovery, Education and Success:
The addict isn't who you think
McGreevey, said through his work with the Integrity House recovery program, met a young woman from Ocean County:
"She was a schoolteacher. Wonderful person. She taught third or fourth grade. She had gotten into an accident. A physician had prescribed an opiate. Over the course of four months and then six months and then longer, and she became addicted to that opiate."
So she pharmacy-shopped and doctor-shopped, looking for more drugs. When she ran out of legal options, in desperation, she moved onto heroin.
Started burglarizing families. She wound up in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women — "and realized how quickly she fell through the rabbit hole, and that her life had become a disaster because of opiates," McGreevey said.
"My frustration with pain killers and how readily they are available in America and New Jersey and society and how frightening it is, it’s something that’s all around us. As parents we need to be mindful and as policy makers we need to be constantly in the vanguard."
"This is a crisis that happens across all families, all socio-economic groups, racial groups, ethnic groups. This is an American crisis that we're in the midst of, and it's tragically getting worse.
Detox and rehab aren't enough
Heroin has a pronounced effect on both the brain and body — changing the brain in irreversible ways. Daniel Regan, co-founder of the CFC Loud N Clear aftercare program, had been in and out of rehab 7 times before finally beginning a longer and more dedicated path to recovery from heroin and methamphetamines.
Addicts are afraid of the physical withdrawal, he said. But the mental addiction can't be ignored.
"When you go through a treatment center, and you get detoxed, and you feel better, you feel better about life, and you have it all together — then reality starts coming in," Regan said. "And what happens is, when you're in addiction, you have to rationalize your behaviors. ... You start making excuses to why you're taking the heroin. It turns into a certain point that when you stub your toe, it's an excuse to do heroin.
"You're thrown back into real life. And you have to deal with family issues. And you have to deal with relationship issues. And bills, and children, and all those things. Your comfy blanket is gone, and you don't know how to cope.
"That's where the learning process needs to take place. People need the tools to learn to cope with life, instead of running to that comfy blanket, heroin."
Regan's organization, CFC, puts a strong emphasis on socialization and building life skills, helping those in recovery to feel valued and be productive — and giving them less reason to return to drug use.
"To Daniel's point, we need to ask additional questions," he said. "'Why do people leave treatment, stop doing the things that build a purposeful life?' Changing the focus and ask questions like, 'What keeps people in recovery?' 'What do people do consistently in order to grow and experience a positive quality of life?' This focus can make recovery more attractive."
Caller Carl from Trenton told those in the studio he'd been clean for six years, as of this week.
"People don't realize, you go into a rehab 30 days. That's not enough. When I first came into recovery, it took me almost three to four years to get right."
The crisis crosses party lines — it crosses all lines
Republican Gov. Chris Christie has spoken passionately — both in his role leading the state and as a former presidential candidate — about drug policy reform.
In a video that's been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, Christie last year made an impassioned plea to see drug addiction as a disease.
Christie said his mother smoked her whole life — addicted to the nicotine. She knew it was bad for her, and she tried to quit — but failed, time and time again. She was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 71.
“But no one came to me and said, ‘Hey listen, you know, your mother was dumb, she started smoking when she was 16. Then after we told her it was bad for her, she kept doing it, so we’re not going to give her chemotherapy, we’re not gonna give her radiation, we’re not going to give her any of that stuff — you know why? ‘Cause she’s getting what she deserves.’ No one said that,” Christie said. “No one said that about someone who had cancer.”
In Thursday night's town hall, Democrat McGreevey, co-chair of Christie's Facing Addictions Task Force, said he believes Christie has "done more on this issue that, I believe, than any other governor, Democratic or Republican, based on firm sense of conviction. But he understood that this isn't just a criminal justice problem. ... There's a public health dimension. There's a human services dimension."
Acting Human Services Commissioner Elizabeth Connolly said that includes about $127 in new funding to raise reimbursements to treatment centers — and provide more slots for those seeking recovery options. It includes expanded use of drug courts, which provide mandatory treatment to first-time, non-violent offenders. It includes more support for behavioral health homes that can address several issues in one setting.
But importantly, Connolly said, it the governor has put an emphasis on reducing the stigma around addiction.
"Stigma is one thing that keeps people from seeking treatment. It keeps people from going out and reaching out for help," she said.
In the online chat, Carrier Clinic counselor Larry Litras agreed: "All mental health issues face stigma. Addiction is a mental health issue."
And from chat participant Chris T.: "Stigma alone kills thousands of people by stopping them from asking for help."
"The stigma associated with this disease is horrendous. Like Gov. Christie said, if my son had cancer from smoking cigarettes, which was his choice, I'd have my neighbors knocking on my door, bringing me food.
"Instead, because my son made a choice, a bad one at that, and got hooked on heroin, we've been ostracized by some of our neighbors."
The dealer isn't who you think
Carolyn Krug, a 24-year-old from Howell, looks like "the kind of girl that I would see at the mall," New Jersey 101.5 news director Eric Scott said. "Shopping, talking to your friends.
"When we first met you, we were shocked to know you were a drug dealer."
Krug had been a user as well. At age 12, she started drinking alcohol and smoking pot. At 15, she was taking prescription painkillers and synthetic heroin.
"The thing a lot of people have a problem with — they don't want to admit that because you don't live in a run down neighborhood, that this isn't going to happen," she said. "It's everywhere."
Krug said her friends in high school dealt drugs. Her friends in middle school dealt drugs. She sold marijuana herself — so she could smoke for free.
Then she started making money. Friends would come to her for Xanax and opiates. She tought her friends to smoke opiates — "it tasted like cotton candy and it smelled like burnt marshmallows."
By the time she was late into her teen years, she was selling drugs to her friends' parents.
"I grew up in a wonderful town in a beautiful neighborhood. My parents were together. I had a great childhood growing up," she said. "But I just made the wrong choices."
"It's going to be the person you least expect it to be," Krug said. "It's going to be your son's best friend. Or your daughter's boyfriend's brother. It can literally be anybody."
It wasn't until Krug got clean that she felt remorse, she said.
"One of the people that I used to sell to, and I turned onto heroin, wound up selling opiates. And he sold bad heroin that he knew was bad and it killed somebody."
• New Jersey residents can find a list of licensed addiction treatment services for every county here.
• There are several important phone numbers for those ready to seek help. The Mental Health Association in New Jersey, MHANJ, provides the NJ Connect for Recovery call line, which is dedicated for individuals and families coping with heroin and prescription painkillers. It can be reached at 856-652-3737 or TTY 877-294-4356 and at njconnectforrecovery.org.
NJ Reentry Corp in Jersey City can be reached at NJreentry.org. It's a a non-profit agency with a social mission to remove all barriers to employment for citizens returning from jail or prison.
New Jersey provides information about treatment centers at 888-995-6273. The NJ Addiction Services Hotline is at 844-276-2777. The Center for Addiction Recovery Education and Success at 973-625-1998 offers certified peer recovery specialists.
• Transitional living services can be helpful as well. Herbert noted Black Horse Acres in Gloucester County, which can be reached at 609-645-2500 ext 121. Freedom House in Glen Gardner provides recovery services, but warns it has an no-nonsense abstinence policy — it turns away hundreds of men each year and prioritizes those ready to commit to getting better.
• Regan's organization, CFC Loud N Clear, focuses on socialization alongside recovery support. Krug, a participant in the program who joined us in the studio, said young people in the suburbs often turn to drugs out of boredom — feeling there's nothing else to do — and their use escalates from there.
• Litras, the counselor with the Carrier Clinic, suggested starting conversations about drugs and addiction early: "You cannot start the conversation about drug use too young in a child's life. Please don't wait." He said other addictive habits — like cigarette use — can be an early sign of a problem that will escalate
"I agree with Larry," Herbert of CARES wrote in the online chat. "The conversation needs to be more than 'Just say no.' The conversation needs to establish a safe environment where young people can ask questions and give their feed back. Young people need to be heard."