Nearly 1,600 people in New Jersey died of a drug overdose in 2015. The body count for 2016 — not yet official — is expected to be significantly higher.

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But in those same two years, just 24 people were arrested in New Jersey for providing deadly drugs to the people they killed.

Under a state law adopted 30 years ago, drug dealers and everyone in the drug "chain" are held criminally responsible for deaths resulting from the drugs they've made or distributed.

But in the decades since, the strict liability law has been utilized sparingly by law enforcement agencies, mainly due to the difficulty of establishing a solid link between victim and dealer.

According to statistics from the state Division of Criminal Justice, the charge resulted in 179 arrests and 94 convictions through 2016 since its enactment in 1987. There's been a noticeable uptick in the arrest numbers since 2014 when the Attorney General's Office issued a statewide directive that called for enhanced use of the strict liability law.

The highest number of arrests in a single year — 15 — occurred in 2016. Nine and 13 arrests occurred in 2015 and 2014, respectively.

And for the past three years, Ocean County has led the way. Weeks after taking office in 2013, Prosecutor Joseph Coronato completely reorganized how drug deaths are investigated, according to spokesman Al Della Fave.

Instead of waiting four to six weeks for a medical examiner to confirm a drug-induced death, as it had been done in the past, Coronato mandated that the homicide investigation begin the moment first responders feel they have a drug overdose on their hands.

"Our homicide people roll out immediately," Della Fave said. "This way they're able to interview people when they're more likely to cooperate ... There's a ton of evidence we can collect immediately."

In many cases, Della Fave said, investigators have been able to identify the exact "dosage stamp" that was sold to the victim and is still being sold by a particular dealer.

"Prosecutor Coronato calls it his checkmate statute at this point because the evidence we glean early on is so strong that in every case we’ve adjudicated to date, in terms of strict liability, all defendants have plead out and have been receiving sentences from the judge, on average, from six to eight years," Della Fave said.

And the special operations group devoted to these investigations has clearance to work beyond county borders. Strict liability cases have reached as far as Atlantic, Essex and Mercer counties, Della Fave said.

Ocean County saw 120 overdose deaths in 2015, more than 200 in 2016 and another 57 so far in 2017.

Della Fave noted it's very difficult for investigators anywhere to prove a link between buyer and dealer, but suggests the county has it "down to a science" now.

The state tallied three strict liability convictions in each 2016 and 2015. The year 1989 saw the greatest number of convictions — eight.

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