Ocean County is on pace this year to break its 2013 record high of 112 overdose deaths linked to heroin and opiates.

“It is scary, it is prevalent out there," Ocean County Prosecutor Joe Coronato said. "It’s not if you’re going to die, it’s when you are going to die once you go down that path. People have to understand it’s a dangerous, dangerous path."

This week, New Jersey 101.5 is taking a deep look into the state's heroin epidemic. Today we look at what’s being done to try and turn the tide.

For decades, illegal drug involvement was considered to be strictly a law enforcement issue. Recently, however, an evolving understanding of the problem is resulting in new approaches that don't end with locking people behind bars.

Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor for New Jersey, has led statewide efforts to create a mandatory treatment program for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. The state's Drug Courts provide a chance at rehab, not mandatory incarceration.

The Christie administration also backed a pilot program to have first responders carry Narcan, the anti-heroin antidote used to revive overdose victims. Two years after that program began, Narcan is now being used statewide.

St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Passaic County is believed to be the first hospital in the nation to substitute non-addictive pain medications for opiate ones, to hopefully prevent patients from getting hooked. Other hospitals in New Jersey are watching to see if the program works, and may follow suit if it does.

The Garden State’s law enforcement community is also taking a fresh look at how best to blunt the heroin crisis.

“I think we need to change our approach because what we did for the last 40 years really hasn’t worked,” said Coronato, who spear-headed the state’s first Narcan program two years ago.

He said to slow down and eventually reverse the heroin opiate epidemic, we need to break down the problem in “blocks,” and the first one must focus on education and prevention.

“We need to go strong into the schools, be woven into the schools. We’re going to work hard to educate students and teachers about the dangers of going down this path,” he said

Coronato said the second block involves law enforcement.

“Strong law enforcement, we’ll go in and go after the real predator drug dealers out there, we’re going to bring K9 units into the schools, we will seize assets of drug dealers, cars or the criminal money that’s been obtained as a result of the drug dealing,” he explained.

The third block is partnering with the health care community to break the cycle of addiction, which is why Ocean County is one of five statewide involved in the New Jersey Opiod Overdose Recovery pilot program.

Once an overdose victim has been stabilized at a hospital, there is an opportunity for a “recovery coach” to capture the individual and get them into detox and then recovery.

“They’re going to convince that person that since they almost died, they were at death’s doorstep, that this is their opportunity to go into a rehab facility, go to a detox facility,” he said.

Coronato stressed when the pilot began back in January they were hoping for a 10 to 15 percent success rate with the recovery coaches, but so far it’s been about 70 percent. However, “we’ve got a long way to go. It’s just a long marathon, and we’re at the beginning of this marathon. We’re certainly not at the end.”

“We not only have to capture them and have them agree to go to detox, we need to make sure they stay in the detox, we need to make sure these programs are good programs and this is a disease that’s probably going to last a lifetime. We want to be able to solve the problem. We want to be able to break the cycle of addiction.”

Coronato said they have to make sure the detox and recovery programs these addicts go into is the right fit for them so they don’t have relapses.

“When you take an opiate it changes the user's brain, like the person who can’t function without their morning cup of coffee, the opiate addict needs to get high so they can function without feeling sick and terrible,” he said.

Coronato said even though more people are being treated for heroin overdoses with Narcan, overdose deaths are still rising, and they could top all-time highs by the end of the year.

Tomorrow we’ll look at a new heroin treatment alternative.

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