Why does the New Jersey heroin and opiate epidemic continue to get worse?

For years, many doctors and dentists have prescribed opiate-based prescription painkillers for sports injuries, dental work and other procedures, and that has resulted in many, especially younger, people getting hooked before they even realize what has happened.

After that, it's the cost of drugs that frequently move these addicts toward heroin.

A bag of heroin on the street may cost $5 or $10, compared to $40 or $50 for a prescription painkiller pill on the black market.

Addiction experts tell us that heroin changes the brains of those who use it, making it extremely difficult if not impossible for some to permanently stop snorting or shooting it — even after going through detox and rehab multiple times.

But there are other reasons as well.

According to Angelo Valente, executive director of the Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey, heroin is cheaper and more powerful in New Jersey than in most other parts of the country because we are a gateway supply state, with close access to major airports, a seaport and a highway system that makes it easy for drug distributors to move their product up and down the entire east coast.

(David Matthau, Townsquare Media)
(David Matthau, Townsquare Media)

Ezra Helfand, executive director of the Wellspring Center for Prevention, says heroin dealers routinely mix their product with several opiate variations and enhancements “to make it more attractive, both in terms of color and names.”

He said these drug concoctions, including synthetic heroin, “are very dangerous."

"We’re seeing the number of overdose victims climbing every year, and the scary part is that many of these products are available on the internet, which is something that youth is obviously going to turn to as a resource.”

One drug that has recently become a popular heroin additive is Fentanyl, which is used primarily to treat advanced-stage cancer patients in hospitals.

Dr. David Buch, chief of Addiction Medicine at the Carrier Clinic, said mixing Fentanyl with heroin is extremely dangerous because “it’s many times more potent than heroin is, perhaps 50 times more potent, and it’s more likely that people are going to stop breathing.”

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“When it comes to drug dealers, you never know what the heroin you’re buying is mixed with. There’s really a risk out there that not everybody is honest in what they may supply to you.”

Valente pointed out “it is a real major disadvantage that a person who is involved with heroin addiction really is in a situation where they don’t know what the next hit will do. Will it provide them with an overdose situation? In many cases it does.”

“What we have seen, unfortunately, is heroin and opiates in every neighborhood, in every community in the state of New Jersey and throughout the country," he said. "We’re seeing young people who are athletes, who are wonderful students coming from excellent homes getting involved with heroin because in many cases they become exposed and then addicted to prescription painkillers and move on from there, so we need to put as much emphasis as possible on prevention."

In tomorrow's installment of our weeklong series on New Jersey's heroin epidemic, we’ll examine how the war on heroin and opiates is changing.

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