SPRINGFIELD, NJ - Drug problems have moved into the suburbs. -- “Everybody thinks that drugs and alcohol is a problem in the cities," said New Providence Mayor Al Morgan. "That’s not true – all of our towns have a problem." 

"The general public has to know what really goes on in our towns," said Morgan. "We are not going to stick our head in the sand. If we save one life or make a difference of one person -- it’s worth every minute."

Morgan and Springfield Deputy Mayor Ziad Shehady hosted a Town Hall Forum last Thursday at the Springfield Municipal Building with a panel of speakers to discuss the growing issue of "Drugs in our Communities." The speakers included Acting Union County Prosecutor Grace Park; Guns, Gangs, Drugs, and Violent Crimes Task Force Supervisor Julie Peterman, Springfield Police Chief John Cook and New Providence Police Chief Anthony Buccelli.

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The prescription painkiller phenomenon within our suburban communities has proven to be a direct trend. "It seems safe -- the pill -- the Vicodin and Percocet prescribed all the time for the oral surgery for the pain," said Park.

She described the direct link of kids using prescription drugs from the medicine cabinets and then finding it on the street to get high. "The addiction has become expensive, paying $50 per pill," said Park. "It is unaffordable and they can't pay for it. What ends up happening is they switch to heroin which goes for $5 per hit (per fold) on the street."  

Park said that this happens in every city and every town. "It is hitting across the county regardless of where you are, what race you are and what socioeconomic background you are," said Park.

New Providence Police Chief Anthony Buccelli reported a surprising statistic trend that  it is estimated that 2 percent of all high school students are using heroin on a regular basis. New Providence has 650 students at the high school, 2 percent "equates to 13 kids that openly admit to using on a regular basis," said Buccelli.

This problem affects not only high school kids. -- "Every single one of us knows someone in our life that has a problem in drugs," said Springfield Deputy Mayor Ziad Shehady. ---"It knows no boundaries."

Buccelli quoted statistics from Gateway Center for Counseling and Recovery in New Providence stating, "74 percent of New Providence residents in recovery programs are treated for opioid or heroin addiction." This number represents five times that of residents in recovery for alcohol abuse. 

While public concern is on teens, trends shows that heroin overdose is split evenly among all age groups with the average age of fatal overdose being 40. "One of our overdose victims was a 52 year old man," said Buccelli. "It's not just kids, it's not just teenagers and young adults," said Buccelli. 

Buccelli reported that New Providence had four overdoses in 2015 [Narcan was administered resulting in two saves and two deaths], and one to-date in 2016.

Springfield has seen a rise in overdoses. Springfield Police Chief John Cook reported one overdose in 2014 [which resulted in death]; three in 2015 [two resulting in death], and four to date in 2016 [one resulting in death]. The saves are due to Narcan being administered, said Cook. 

Narcan, a powerful aerosol medication capable of reversing the often-fatal effects of heroin overdoses, has been distributed to police officers across the 21 Union County municipalities. Since the distribution of the kits in 2014, there have been 163 deployments with 153 saves, said Park. "Those could have been all fatal overdoses." 

"The sad thing about this initiative -- it only solves the immediate problem of saving the person's life." Park said. She explained the heroin user gets upset when they are revived because it takes away their high. "There have been efforts to bridge the gap between Narcan deployment and rehabilitation. That's the next step," said Park.

In an effort to save more lives, Gov. Chris Christie signed the Overdose Prevention Act into law in 2013 which encourages overdose victims and witnesses to seek medical assistance in the event of an overdose emergency. By guaranteeing limited legal protection from arrest and prosecution, the law eliminates fear as a major barrier to help-seeking. 

Park told the tragic true story of two suburban kids in loving homes from typical suburban neighborhoods -- they borrowed a parent's car, took money out of the bank, and drove down Route 22 to purchase $80 of heroin in Bridgewater, they checked back in with the parent and went up to the bedroom. Both kids overdosed.

"This is the tragic story of heroin overdose," said Park. "The reason I bring this story up -- it is an example of two suburban kids in relatively attentive homes that represent suburban America."

"It can happen to them, it's an example of what can happen in Springfield," said Park. "We continue to have overdoses in New Providence and Springfield."

It is not just an issue in Union County, it's a National epidemic, she said.

Park explained that law enforcement is working to control the supply by tackling the organizations that are trafficking heroin and other drugs in the county. There have been more heroin seized in the past three years than in the prior 10, said Park. 

"Through wire taps, we have broken up some very significantly violent gangs in Union County the past couple of years," said Julie Peterman, Guns, Gangs, Drugs, and Violent Crimes Task Force Supervisor. Since, the violence in Elizabeth has plummeted, she said.

Through the combined effort of the Springfield Police department and the Guns, Gangs, Drugs, and Violent Crimes Task Force, they have taken down a meth lab operation, a pharma scientist creating drugs in his condo and two mid to high level marijuana dealers.

Buccelli told the story of an arrest during a regular vehicle stop in a local neighborhood with three out-of-town people arrested. "More than 1,300 folds of heroin were seized, more than 5 oz of marijuana, more than 6 grams of cocaine," -- and a cache of other drugs. "When we did interview them after their arrest, they said they were lost -- we don't believe that for a second," said Buccelli. "We know they were in town for a reason. We are seeing more and more of that in our town," he said.

Assemblywoman Nancy Muñoz, who was in the audience, advised the room that they continue to look at this problem at the State Legislature level. The Prescription Monitoring Program is in place and crosses state lines which identify people who are shopping for narcotics in emergency rooms and doctor's offices, she explained.

"My message is simply this, we have to all work together on this issue -- parents, community leaders, law enforcement, prosecutor's office, legislatures together to tackle this problem," said Muñoz. "We are working in the legislature to do things that we think will make the problem as safe as possible. We want to make sure that we don't restrict it so much that those who actually need the medications [can't receive them]. There are people with serious pain issues and then we have this crisis and we are restricting the medications."

Project Medicine Drop is exercised throughout Union County. It allows consumers to dispose of unused and expired medications anonymously, quickly, and easily. These drop boxes are located within the headquarters of participating police department. Click here for locations.  

During the question/answer discussion, therapists provided the following signs of opioid addiction in teens: change of behavior; change of friends; become isolating from family; not eat with family; one word quick answers; no eye contact; never will have money; always need something; frequent flu like symptoms [withdrawal]; restricted pupils.

Richard Hlavacek, Executive Director of Families and Community Together (FACT) in Mountainside spoke about the resources available for families who need help. To learn more, visit their website at www.factnj.org.

The program will be televised on local NPTV (Comcast Channel 35 and Verizon FIOS Channel 37).