Ocean County Prosecutor Describes Grim Challenge in Opioid Crisis

Bail Reform for Addicts Is ‘a Monster Problem for Us’
By PAT JOHNSON | Sep 27, 2017
Photo by: Pat Johnson Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato addresses a Seniors Advisory Group meeting in Little Egg Harbor.

Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato told a group of senior residents that 85 percent of the breaking and entering, shoplifting and other theft crimes in Southern Ocean County is drug-related because addicts need to feed their habits.

He was joined by Little Egg Harbor Police Chief Richard Buzby during the Monday, Sept. 25, meeting of the Little Egg Harbor Senior Advisory Group. Buzby reported that he believed a rash of thefts in the Tavistock area of the township at the end of August was also due to drug-seeking behavior. He blamed New Jersey’s Bail Reform Act for returning addicts to the streets while they are still addicted.

“People are still drug-addicted, drug-influenced. And they (criminal justice authorities) are turning loose hungry drug addicts,” said Buzby. “The jails are empty and the crime rates are up substantially.”

“Bail reform has been a monster problem for us to deal with, a challenge,” said Coronato.

The state has closed “the largest detox center we have in the county – in the Ocean County Jail,” Coronato had remarked earlier, as he was discussing the health care “block” in the growing addiction epidemic. When addicts are arrested and spend time in jail, the system has opportunity to do diagnostic tests for addictions, and law enforcement has opportunity to get them the help they need, the prosecutor explained. Bail reform has allowed many people out of the system within hours, and if they are addicts, they are looking to grab money for drugs.

“The bottom line is a packet of heroin costs $5. And someone who has developed a habit needs five or 10 packets a day,” he said. “One girl (who overdosed but was revived) had a 50-packet a day habit – so that was $250 a day.”

Coronato broke his talk into three blocks to deal with the opioid epidemic: education and prevention, law enforcement, and health care to break the cycle of addiction.

But first he outlined the severity of the problem.

When Coronato was appointed by the governor to head the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office in January 2013, “My first week, there were eight overdose deaths in Ocean County of young people ranging from 28 to 18 years old. I knew the problem was growing: In 2012, there were 56 individuals who had died from opioid drug overdoses; there were 56 by the summer of 2013. And by the end of the year, there were 112 people who died.”

Coronato was instrumental in introducing to police and other first responders the distribution of Narcan, an opioid “antidote” that seemed almost a miracle drug. It has brought many overdose cases back from the brink. But drug dealers are evolving in their use of more-dangerous drugs that they mix with heroin. Fentanyl is a synthetic heroin that is so powerful, law enforcement can’t use dogs to detect the drug because inhaling just a few grains could kill the dog.

Buzby said that because of Coronato’s focus and commitment to working on the crimes and the heartbreak of addiction, he is “the best recognized person in the fight against opioid addiction, not just in New Jersey, but in the entire country.”

Coronato has an integrated way of approaching the problem. The first block, education and prevention, is where he spends the most amount of forfeiture funds the prosecutor’s office receives from successful drug arrests.

“I meet once a month with all the (school district) superintendents of Ocean County,” said the prosecutor. “We have developed seven videos on addictions, explaining that’s a road they don’t want to go down. And we have developed a curriculum that can be taught at every grade level about the changes drugs do in the body.

“We have K-9 searches in schools. We check lockers, cars in the parking lots. We are proactive in the schools. Prevention is key.

“The second block is strong law enforcement. We are aggressive against the drug dealers, those who prey on the people with this sickness. And we have a strict liability on overdose deaths. If someone overdoses and dies, I add the homicide detectives to drug enforcement to find the individual who sold the drugs. And we hold that individual accountable. We lead the nation with 37 cases in Ocean County.”

Coronato is expected to train other prosecutors in the state on strict liability laws.

Ocean County is split into north and south law enforcement units. The northern unit is stationed in Toms River; the southern is in Stafford Township. Ocean County has the largest drug unit in the state, said Coronato.

“I have between 22 and 28 individuals in my drug unit, with eight or nine detectives, that all work together with local law enforcement. I might have an officer from Little Egg detach for a year and work out of the building in Stafford. We are looking for the drug dealers in Ocean County, and where the drugs originate.”

The third block in his integrated plan is health care – breaking the cycle of addiction, with this goal: “Returning people to become viable members of society, by helping them get off chemical dependency.”

Coronato said the problem of drugs being infused with the more powerful fentanyl in the past few years has contributed to the rise of deaths, despite having Narcan available.

In 2014 the use of Narcan brought the overdose death rate in the county down to 101. But in 2015, it rose to 118. It spiked to 209 in 2016.

“How is that happening with Narcan? Because the drug problem continues to evolve. The heroin of today is a conglomerate of all sorts of drugs, including the synthetic drug fentanyl. In 2014, 10 percent of heroin contained fentanyl. In 2015, 30 percent did. And in 2016, 60 percent did. It is so powerful, the body can’t take it.”

Drug dealers use fentanyl because it is cheaper and gives a powerful punch to those heavily addicted to opioids.

“The bottom line is: Narcan is saving lives, but recycling the addict. We need the next phase, which is the opiate overdose response program. When someone addicted comes into the system, we want him or her to get into treatment.

“We have received a grant through the department of health to train recovery coaches, people who have been there and understand them. We have recovery coaches in Brick, and Community Hospital in Toms River, but not yet in SOCH (now Southern Ocean Medical Center) because the funding is not yet there.

“Say an individual has overdosed, and been sprayed with Narcan from a first responder. We want the recovery coach there, while the teardrops are warm, to convince them to go into treatment. Sixty-five percent have gone to treatment.

“In January of 2017, we instituted the Blue Heart program in Brick and Manchester, where a person can walk into a police station and ask to go to treatment. And that has been successful. We want to expand it to Stafford, Lacey and Ocean Gate this week. A person walks in, says they need help, and a clinician is called and they are taken to a detox facility. Then I send them to a treatment facility in Arizona or Texas – out to the desert – and get them away from their friends and contacts.

“Rich (Buzby) wants it in Little Egg, and that’s not far away. But the issue is we need more detox beds. We can’t keep an individual waiting for two or three hours for intervention.

“Since January, 250 people have turned themselves into a police station, asking for help. Of that 250, none of them had health care (insurance), and were paid for through scholarships and forfeiture money. We did the same with Narcan. We never used taxpayers’ money; we used forfeiture money.

“You may be asking yourselves, ‘How, as a senior, can I make a difference?’ People don’t wake up one day and decide ‘I want to be an addict.’ It all starts in the medicine cabinet. And the process has been going on for 30 to 40 years.

“The problem has not been properly addressed by the pharmaceutical companies who sold the doctors a bill of goods. Someone gets a pain prescription from the dentist or the doctor, and the doctor or dentist writes a prescription for a month’s worth. You may take two or three but decide that’s enough, and put the rest in the medicine cabinet. But who counts the pills in the bottles in the medicine cabinet? And you don’t want to throw them out – you paid for them, right?

“Then the kids go into the medicine cabinet and they find that someone will pay them $5 or $10 a pill. So they take a handful, but not enough to make you notice. Then they go to their grandparents’ house, or the neighbors or their friends’ houses, and ask to use the bathroom – and get some more pills.”

The prescription drop-off program in Ocean County – where people can take their outdated or unneeded medicines for safe disposal in their local police station – has been a resounding success. Already it has netted between 13 and 14 tons of medicines that the county has safely destroyed, keeping them out of the wrong hands and out of the environment.

Coronato suggested the pharmaceutical companies be held to the same fire as the tobacco companies were held to in the ’70s.

Gov. Chris Christie recently signed legislation that will limit the number of certain opioid drugs to a five-day supply, Coronato pointed out. “I asked, ‘Why five days? Why not a week’s supply, so a person wouldn’t have to suffer over the weekend?’ But it turns out that research has found that by the sixth day, the body has a 70 percent chance of acclimating to the drug,” which may become addiction.

Coronato said he hoped he hadn’t bored the seniors with the amount of information he was imparting. Yet most had been more than attentive.

“Remember that fighting drug addiction is a marathon, not a sprint,” the prosecutor told his audience. “It will take us a long time to solve these problems. But we all have to work together.”

patjohnson@thesandpaper.net

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