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HEROIN: No Longer Somewhere Else

The first of an ongoing series about an epidemic that once besieged the cities, but now deeply affects the streets of suburban and rural New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and throughout America

At Stop & Shop, you only worry about the restroom when you need it. It's like the rest of place: Clean. No mold; no residual smell. Something the Point Pleasant Boro, N.J. store is known for. Even Proud of.

The only "graffiti" is on the light switch; it says "on" and "off." The worst things that happen are a leaky diaper, a locked door, or a line.

On Jan. 10, something very bad, and once unthinkable happened here. Something that's become too common, a symbol of a crisis that's plaguing Ocean County, N.J., plaguing New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the whole country.

Something that doesn't happen in a place so clean.

On Jan. 10, a 42-year-old was found dead here, at the only "big store" Point Pleasant Boro has. The Jersey City man overdosed on heroin, carrying five additional wax folds stamped “Bud Light” in red on his person. 

It was yet another sad case, another horrific way of validating that heroin is no longer the scourge of the streets, the back alleys and the abandoned buildings of the cities.

No longer the scariest drug, heroin is now among the easiest to get. It's among the most accessible; especially the high.

And as it becomes cheaper and more available, it's no longer the problem that's happening "elsewhere." Small towns, big cites, even rural farmland areas - they're all coming to grips with the sad fact that the number of cases in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere has skyrocketed in just a matter of a few years.

In just a few years, the drug's purity has jumped from 12 to 65 percent, according to Al Della Fave, spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office. With it, overdose deaths in Ocean County, N.J., home to Point Pleasant and other seashore communities battling it all, doubled from 53 in 2012 to 112 in 2013.

In the past three years, addicts who could no longer pay $25 a pill for drugs like oxycodone switched to the much cheaper heroin, often sold for $5 per dose in Newark and Paterson, according to NJ.com.

The number of people between the ages 18 to 25 who sought treatment for opiate addiction jumped by 12 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to NJ.com. There were 368 deaths heroin-related deaths in New Jersey in 2011, up from 287 in 2010, according to the state medical examiner’s office.

In the last two weeks of January, 22 people died in six counties in Pennsylvania from what authorities believe were tainted-heroin overdoses.

Young men and women are dying, but so are older parents with small children. People, like the man at Stop & Shop, his body aged way beyond his 42 years, have now become the face of the epidemic.

People who show none of the obvious signs are getting arrested. Some of them work desk jobs for big companies. Or they labor in the back kitchens of restaurants, and they're getting caught, sent off to rehab yet again.

Many of them were the kind of people once repulsed by the thought of sticking needles in their arms. In the autopsies that have become all too common, the medical examiners find needle tracks covering the arms, legs and feet of their lifeless bodies.

"It just takes over the body to the point that the addiction is hard, almost impossible to stop," said Della Fave.

A Problem for every town

It's in Point Pleasant Boro, mostly known by many as the place to stop for ice cream and gas on the way back from the beach. In 2012, 148 abuse cases were reported here. Deals, possession cases happen on the streets of this town; a Brick woman was recently arrested for allegedly having a hypodermic syringe and drugs on Leighton Avenue.

In 2012, Point Boro placed number 36 on list of New Jersey 565 towns with the most reported incidents of heroin and opiate treatment, according to a Patch report.

It's in Allendale, N.J., where a 22-year-old man was found unresponsive in his bedroom on Jan. 4. He was pronounced dead at the scene; investigators later determined he died from a heroin overdose. Two Paterson men who allegedly sold the lethal dose of heroin were later arrested on second-degree manslaughter charges.

It's in Lacey Township, N.J., where a 19-year-old, back in October, was arrested after he allegedly injected heroin while in the restroom of the local county library. The Lacey man was charged with possession of heroin and possession of a hypodermic syringe.

It's in Hatboro, Pa., where a 27-year-old woman faces 40 years behind bars if convicted in the heroin-induced death of her boyfriend, authorities said. 

In too many towns, case after case, arrest after arrest has some connection - however remotely - to heroin. In documents released to the media this week that detail Monmouth County's indictments, roughly half of the drug charges involve heroin.

But the authorities who are arresting those addicted to it, or pushing it, know that incarceration only goes so far. For every one who's arrested, another's waiting in the wings, ready to carry on one of the few industries thriving in an economy that's not.

"We call it, 'Chasing the rabbit,' " Della Fave said.

A week ago, Ocean County had its 13 overdose death of the year. Last year's number of 112 - once seemed implausible, and unbelievable - could very well be topped in 2014.

What's worse, however, is what's behind the numbers: Broken families, eulogizing and then burying another loved one whom, they thought, never would do such a thing. Or they had it licked.

In some cases, the family knew nothing about what was going on until the final, fatal moment.

"He was 90 days clean," said one Ocean County resident, just a day after she recently helped lay her nephew to rest. "That's what makes it more f--d up. He had so much to live for."

Her nephew was a parent, she said. Nothing ever showed on the outside, until November, when he was caught. "Everything was just fantastic," she said.

Through the rehab stint, the man, whose name is being withheld at the family's request, did his job. Played with the kids.

Then came the 90th day. A day that should have been celebrated. Three months clean.

On that day, he was found dead.

At his funeral, there were 250 cars. Lines were out the door at the wake. So much to live for, people say.

"I don't know where it failed," she said. "I'd see him outside playing with the children with the idea that it was going well."

A competitive industry that keeps growing

How it happens no longer matters. Indeed, the old stereotype of junkies in alleys, emblematic of urban decay, is an image that ended with the 1970s.

It's also a drug that's not just injected anymore. Snorting it was never enough, because it was never pure enough. For many, however, now it is.

The industry has become very competitive, Della Fave said. The drug lords of Colombia, Afghanistan and elsewhere have upped the purity as heroin has become more available, and its price has plummeted. 

"The cartels are making it purer because they're trying to be more competitive," he said.

So many will go to any depths to use it. To make a little more money so they can buy it, they'll sell it.

In February, a trio of Cinnaminson, N.J. residents already charged in a string of robberies were charged with armed robbery and conspiracy in the holdup of the Town Liquor Store on Route 130 in nearby Florence. An investigation revealed the defendants used proceeds from the robberies to buy heroin in Camden, officials said.

In the Stop & Shop incident, the heroin was laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate that's as lethal as it is potent. The drug is up to five times more potent than heroin, and its use is suspected in recent overdose cases not just in New Jersey, but also in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, North Carolina elsewhere.

Heroin laced with fentanyl is stronger, cheaper and more desirable on the street, Della Fave says. A user who overdoses can quickly lose consciousness, and stop breathing.

But they use it anyway, because it's the next great high, the next way to raise the stakes when they can''t be raised anymore.

"Once a person injects heroin into themselves, from there on in, they're no longer making rational decisions," Della Fave said.

Addressing the problem, and the needs

There are towns that still resist any connection to the drug, even as many of their own continue to struggle with addiction.

Indeed, Patch's posting of 45 New Jersey communities with the most cases of heroin and opiate abuse and treatment prompted some public officials and police officers to protest, saying the state's data is flawed, or easily misconstrued.

Even some of those arrested in recent months have emailed, or called, demanding that their pictures be taken down. The other guy had the heroin, they'll say. They were just driving the car.

Others say they not only acknowledge what's become, in their words, an "epidemic;" they've "attacked" it.

Like in Ocean County, where Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato has been dealing with it since day one, Della Fave says. In just his third week, back in April 2013, his office dealt with nine heroin deaths in eight days.

In Ocean County, Della Fave said every police chief has signed on to Coronato's attempts to deal with it. In heroin-abuse forums in Lacey and Manahawkin, the seats were filled, forcing just as many to stand. 

In every heroin-related death, a homicide detective from the prosecutor's office is called in to respond.

Having a clean image is important, Della Fave says. But nobody's clean anymore.

"It's here, and it's alive," he said.
Ilene Guttenberg-Triestman March 17, 2014 at 03:33 PM
Maybe you should stop judging and educate yourself. Substance abuse is an illness. It is not a moral issue. It is a disease with a stigma attached to it. It does not discriminate. If someone in your family was affected by this horrible disease, you would not be so quick to judge!
Simon March 17, 2014 at 09:47 PM
@Ilene: I'm not one of your children, so don't lecture me as you would a child. Thank you.
Sadcitizen March 20, 2014 at 01:45 PM
These comments are really concerning. Kids are becoming addicted to heroin because parents now a days are stupid. as a 20 year old with a fulltime job, a part time job, and going to school all I have to say is why do your kids have money or time to buy or do heroin? Anyone I graduated high school with that has had a child, that child is being taken care of by the grandparents. Heroin is an epidemic in south brunswick because middle class parents enable their children in every way possible. If your kid is over 18, who cares if they're in school and need to "focus" on school. They're not focusing on school they're drinking with their friends. Anyone over 18 years old should have a job. Maybe if your kids had RESPONSIBILITIES and were held accountable for their actions heroin use wouldn't be so wide spread. And just a little tidbit for all y'all....... The "gateway drug" theory is BS.
Simon March 21, 2014 at 11:52 AM
Sad: I no longer live in SB, and this may not be perfectly "pc", but I find it difficult to believe that Asian Indian kids are part of any heroine epidemic unless they have been corrupted by the others.
Tom O'Connor March 21, 2014 at 01:33 PM
I won't comment on whether or not your comment is perfectly "pc", mainly because I don't think you really care. I would observe that it's dangerously ignorant to approach this current heroin problem with preconceived notions about societal segment behaviors...be they cultural, ethnic, or economic.

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