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Fentanyl Strikes NJ: Drug Overdose Deaths Triple on the Shore

New Jersey has been hit hard by the drug epidemic sweeping the country, and nowhere has been harder hit than down at the Shore. First attributed to high rates of prescription painkiller use and abuse, high rates of addiction and overdose across the country were fueled by increasing rates of heroin addiction. Today, the drug responsible for skyrocketing rates of drug overdose deaths is not heroin alone but rather fentanyl-laced heroin. A highly potent drug that can be deadly in minute amounts, both across the state and around the country, fentanyl use is responsible for a staggering number of lives lost.

Since 2014, fentanyl alone or fentanyl-laced heroin has made a horrific problem exponentially worse in New Jersey. In Ocean County specifically, an estimated 72 percent of the heroin seized in drug busts contained some amount of fentanyl, and since 2012, the number of deaths attributed to overdose has more than tripled. As of the beginning of this month, 153 people have died of drug overdose in Ocean County.

Joseph Coronato is a prosecutor in Ocean County. He believes that by 2018 the number of annual deaths in Ocean County caused by overdose could hit 300. Says Coronato: “I think this thing is just going to escalate and continue to spiral out of control.”

most commonly abused, heroin

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is an opiate substance that is about 100 times stronger than morphine. Because it is so potent and inexpensive, many drug dealers use the drug as a cutting agent to intensify the effects of their heroin and other drugs. Consumers, however, are usually unaware of the presence of fentanyl when they purchase heroin. Many take their usual dose without realizing how much stronger the substance will be and inadvertently overdose due to the increased potency. Use of street drugs like heroin is a dangerous game of Russian roulette on an average day, but with the introduction of fentanyl into the market, the stakes have gotten much higher.

Unfortunately, rather than taking warning from the extreme danger associated with fentanyl use, many people struggling with high-dose heroin addictions seek out fentanyl, opting to take the pure version of the drug in order to maintain their addiction. Because such a micro amount of the drug can have an intense effect, it is very easy to take too much or take doses too close together and overdose.

My Central Jersey reports that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) pulled 37 kilograms of pure fentanyl off the street across the state this year alone. To put this in perspective, 37 kilograms is enough fentanyl to kill 18.9 million people, or twice the number of people who live in New Jersey.

Dealers, Customers, and the End Experience

Though it may sound counterintuitive that drug dealers would want to include a substance that has a high likelihood of killing their customers, the fact is that dealers are attempting to have the “best” or most potent product around – and customers seek it out. If a batch gets a reputation for being extremely potent, people will want to buy it despite the risks, and dealers make more money, even if a customer dies in the process.

A National Problem Happening Here at Home

The US Surgeon General recently released a report called “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health” that stated that an estimated one out of every seven Americans will face a substance use disorder and that just 10 percent of that number will access the treatment services that will help them to heal. It is the first report of its kind to come out of the US Surgeon General’s office to be focused solely on substance use disorders, emphasizing the dire nature of the epidemic and the extreme need for immediate treatment.

On average, one person in the country dies every 19 minutes due to an opiate overdose. In addition to the extreme emotional distress for families who lose their loved ones, addiction is also a high-priced problem for all Americans. The US Surgeon General reports that the problem costs taxpayers about $442 billion every year, almost twice as much as diabetes, which costs the country about $245 billion per year. This includes the healthcare costs of those who are uninsured and struggle due to medical emergency caused by accident or overdose, law enforcement and court costs to manage the fallout from other choices made due to addiction, and more.

As the country’s approach to healthcare shifts in the coming years under the new administration, it will be exceedingly important to keep the issue of addiction at the forefront when considering new options. How do you think New Jersey can begin to move forward now in helping people who are struggling with addiction to connect with treatment?