Heroin Wasteland (Part 1 of 5): In an exclusive series on New Jersey’s drug abuse epidemic, we examine the growing problem of heroin addiction in the Garden State and the programs being employed to combat the situation.

Teenagers and young adults in New Jersey continue to abuse prescription drugs and heroin despite a multitude of efforts to raise awareness and stem what many experts regard as an addiction epidemic.

In 2013, heroin overdoses were responsible for 557 deaths in New Jersey, according to data from the Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2010, there were 287 deaths from heroin overdoses.

Heroin needle
A syringe used for heroin (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As the number of deaths increase, so does the number of people seeking treatment.

"The challenge of breaking the heroin and prescription painkiller epidemic is huge because the problem engulfs the lives of those who are addicted," said Dr. David Buch, chief medical officer at Carrier Clinic in Belle Meade.

For many, the fight against addiction is a tremendous battle.

"It's basically like needing to breath, it's just a little short of that kind of urgency, so everything else becomes secondary. It is an amazingly powerful, primitive strong force that overwhelms everything else," Buch said.

In other words, it's difficult to understand the power of the addiction if you haven't experienced it.

"It's like a basic need and you don't think about anything else," Buch said. "Everything else goes to the wayside. It's just that powerful biologically, it's not just like giving up eating cookies."

Buch said law enforcement's efforts to stamp out drugs has not really impacted how frequent addiction is and how often people use different types of substances to fuel their addiction.

"Increasingly, the focus is on treatment rather than criminalizing the use. There's a lot of people addicted to drugs in prison, but prison doesn't make them stop using or recover."

So how can this epidemic be dealt with effectively?

According to Ocean County Prosecutor Joe Coronato, law enforcement must partner up with healthcare while stressing education to make a difference.

"You have to have strong enforcement, but it's not about putting a 12-year-old or a 14- year-old or a 16-year-old in jail - it's making the parents aware, making the school system aware and getting them the help they need - so later on we don't have to find the body when they're 18 or 21 or 24 years old.

That means going into schools and becoming embedded in the community to reach people effectively.

"It's not about punishment, it's about seeking help, especially when you're talking about children. What you want to do is first say 'don't go down that path,' but once they're there, get them the help," Coronato said.

In Part 2 of our series, we’ll look at how the heroin-antidote drug Narcan is impacting the drug landscape in New Jersey.




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