CUMBERLAND COUNTY, N.J. –
As the opioid epidemic continues to claim lives throughout the county, many individuals and local agencies are trying to treat the problem head-on.
Kelsie Custodio has been clean for 16 years and as a business development/treatment advocate for Recovery Centers of America, she tries to help others get out of a life of drugs and potential death.
Custodio said, though, through her years helping recovering addicts, she has seen nothing like the opioid overdose wave that has gripped New Jersey and the United States over the past several years. It’s deeper, darker and is showing no signs of letting up, she said.
“It’s very frightening out there,” Custodio said recently. “I’m glad I got clean 16 years ago because what’s out there now is so bad. I know people who are dying every month; people I know personally. It’s painful.”
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The opioid epidemic has been the subject of television shows, spread on social media, and taken victims all across the country. Grammy-nominated singer Demi Lovato was forced to cancel a concert in Atlantic City last week on July 26 because of a reported overdose on July 24 where the medication Naloxone, better known as Narcan, had to be used to save her life, according to CBS News.
“The addiction leads to the drug, but we know that people are dying because of the drug,” Custodio said. “When the cost of pills get too great, they start using heroin, which is cut today and stronger than what it was.”
Nowhere is safe from the opioid epidemic as the drug fentanyl is now being used to not only enhance heroin, but has now also been found in cocaine, marijuana and other drugs, delivering sometimes paralyzing doses to users who often have no idea what their drugs are cut with.
In Cumberland County, the problem is getting worse.
According to the New Jersey Attorney General statistics, Cumberland County had 66 suspected overdose deaths as of July 22, topping the 53 deaths in all of 2016, the last complete annual list compiled.
That number is a bit deceiving, according to state statistics. When you factor in that Cumberland County has 37.4 deaths per 100,000, it makes the county’s death rate the worst in New Jersey.
Narcan has been administered 379 times so far this year in Cumberland to reverse the effects of an overdose. It was only administered 283 times in 2016 and is quickly approaching the 459 times it was used in 2017, according to state statistics.
“I believe the epidemic has not reached its peak,” said Melissa Niles, the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services director in Cumberland County. “People are accidentally overdosing largely because of tainted substances bought on the street. People who don’t even use opioids have died from fentanyl [overdose] when using cocaine because it is being used as cut to help dealers make more money.”
In some cases drug dealers are now mixing carfentanil—a drug used to sedate elephants and not meant for human consumption—into such drugs as cocaine and heroin because it is cheaper than other drugs, according to the Washington Post.
Carfentanil, which has 10,000 times the potency of morphine, has been connected to nearly 400 deaths in Ohio from July to December 2016 alone, and another 500 deaths in Florida in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I attended a [Drug Enforcement Administration] 360 Presentation a few months ago at Rowan University where it was said that 95 percent of the heroin comes into the county from Mexico and the fentanyl comes from China, purchased on the dark web,” Niles said.
“The DEA has technology that can analyze seized drugs and can trace it back to the field it was grown in. Although people do become inadvertently addicted through doctors overprescribing, most of the OD deaths are the illegal drug trade. There are pill presses that street dealers use to make fake pills look like analgesic pain medication such as Vicodin,” she added.
The patient-doctor stage of the addiction was where Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae first noticed the budding epidemic when she was still in private practice in the late 2000s.
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“It’s more of an anomaly to see people in their late 30s committing their first crime,” Webb-McRae said. “But you hear stories about a person who had a back injury, got addicted and got caught writing a fraudulent medical slip for prescription meds.
“It’s gotten worse now and it’s the same all across the country. People used to say drugs like cocaine was a poor people, black and brown problem. Now it’s hitting the middle class and it’s everyone’s problem. Since my tenure as prosecutor, it has grown more and more prominent.”
In New Jersey, the state’s attorney general’s office stated that there were 1,669 deaths connected with overdoses as of July 22, on schedule to easily outpace the 2,221 deaths connected with overdoses in 2016.
“This is an addiction problem,” South Jersey Region DEA Special Agent in Charge Nicholas J. Kolen said. “Everybody has a role to play in trying to stop this.”
While there seems to be a lot of information in the public sphere about the opioid epidemic, Kolen said he has found far too many people are not tuned into how wide-ranging the problem is and how close to home it can hit.
Webb-McRae said the opioid problem will only get better when attitudes change about addiction.
“I believe that part of how we get there is starting to treat addiction like a medical problem rather than a criminal justice problem,” Webb-McRae said. “If we lessen the avenues of addiction by increasing the avenues to treatment by supporting communities for treatment locally, we can start to make a difference.
“People who live in recovery still have an addiction, so they need support when they get home to live a healthy, vibrate life,” she said, pointing to a relative who moved to Baltimore because he found Narcotics Anonymous had a strong social support system there that made everyday life easier.
Last year, Cumberland County launched CARES program, a synonym for Compassionate Addiction Recovery Equals Success. The program is a collaboration between the prosecutor’s office, Cumberland County Department of Human Services and the Southwest Council, an agency providing local addiction prevention, education, and treatment.
The program allows those who are seeking to get clean long-term—not only from opioids but other drugs and alcohol—to receive support from peers and mentors who have been recruited and trained to serve in a variety of settings.
Those settings include treatment centers, recovery centers, faith-based institutions, and numerous community events.
“I feel that drug use is a symptom of a deeper social indicator,” Niles said. “People are not feeling connected and have lost hope to strive to live successful, productive, meaningful lives. If we can strengthen our community to be viable, proactive, supportive, safe and a place where we can live, work and play, make ends meet and be reasonably happy—that is what will make a true impact on reducing overall addiction issues.”