⚫ NJ is one of 37 states with the same leading cause of death for people under 40

⚫ Experts say this is the product of a growing threat on the streets

⚫ NJ is trying to string together a couple years of declining drug deaths

Another wave of the overwhelming opioid epidemic may be making the battle more dangerous than ever before.

Professionals in the industry are hoping the Garden State can continue its new run of declining annual overdose numbers, despite fentanyl's infiltration into the illegal drug market at essentially an unstoppable pace.

"We have a poisoned drug supply in the state of New Jersey," said Robert Budsock, president and CEO of Newark-based Integrity House. "The heroin that's being sold on the street is either all fentanyl or it's a mixture of heroin and fentanyl."

Just a pinch of the synthetic opioid, which can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin, is enough to kill a user.

According to an analysis by Stateline, accidental overdose was the leading cause of death for people under age 40 in dozens of states last year, including New Jersey.

"My hope is that active users are going to be more careful about what they are using," Budsock said.

Fentanyl test strips can be purchased online by users and their loved ones, and are made available by harm reduction groups, but the synthetic drug is lacing pills that are sold on the street as well.

According to the Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner, New Jersey recorded 2,892 suspected drug-related deaths in 2022. That would be the state's lowest total since 2017 and represents a 7.4% decrease from the 3,124 suspected drug deaths tallied in 2021.

In the week leading up to Oct. 29 of this year, New Jersey recorded 42 suspected drug deaths. Statewide, the death count was approaching 1,800 for 2023 as of Friday.

The synthetic opioid is also claiming the lives of individuals who use cocaine and methamphetamine.

Experts say the profitability linked to fentanyl is essentially cancelling out any fatalities among the drug networks' customer base. The synthetic drug is easier to transport, has a higher value, and delivers a greater punch to users.

But that punch can be strong enough that the user wouldn't even respond to antidote drugs like Narcan.

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