FLEMINGTON, NJ – It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that Hunterdon has become a focal point for drug activity.
Though it may be difficult for residents of bucolic Hunterdon to imagine the scope of the heroin problem in its midst, some say Hunterdon is a natural target.
Hunterdon County Prosecutor Anthony P. Kearns, III said the county – as the rest of the nation – is experiencing an epidemic of heroin use.
“Most overdoses are unintentional, and many appear to be linked to heroin and fentanyl,” Kearns says. “Other overdoses have occurred with prescription opiates.”
According to One Voice experts, the number of drugs that come into Newark seaports is huge, and the first easy off and easy on exit on Route 78 from Newark Airport is in Hunterdon.
An increase in drug use in the county is acutely concerning to Kearns, who has been Hunterdon’s prosecutor for the last six years.
“Tackling the problem is not just a legal process,” the prosecutor explained, citing loneliness as one of the reasons people turn to drugs. “We have everything we could want, but probably never have we been more disconnected.”
“It was my come-to-Jesus moment,” said Rob D., 31, when he found himself facing a group of gang members in his new prison cell. It was the final straw in the downward spiral of his heroin habit. “I was doing 10 to 15 bags in one shot,” he said.
Rob told his story to faith leaders at the annual One Voice Summit held at the Farmhouse at the Grand Colonial in Hampton last week. Rob is one of the lucky ones - he’s alive. Rob has been sober since August 7, 2014, but he struggles with addiction every day. “It can start with a beer,” he said, then it’s a few beers, then it’s too much drinking that could lower defenses.
Rob grew up in Ocean County and now lives in Hunterdon. His journey to addiction began when he was 14 or 15 and he began smoking, followed by drinking and marijuana use and then heroin. One morning, after not having used heroin for a day, he woke up vomiting. Rob realized he was addicted. As soon as he shot up more heroin, the vomiting stopped.
He was 19 years old. Rob is not alone.
Today, Rob is working two jobs and trying to get his G.E.D. Once he has his high school equivalency, he plans to attend cosmetology school at Hunterdon Polytech. In the meantime, he works at Beaver Brook washing dishes, taking out the trash and doing general maintenance. He also works at a hair salon in Bernardsville where he is an assistant to the owner. She is teaching him what she can about color and other techniques, which will give him a leg up when he starts school.
“Families are falling apart, but if they’re connected in faith, they are connected in family,” said Kearns. “We need to make people aware of how vulnerable their kids are.”
Kearns believed there was a dangerous disconnect between family members and communities that required something different than the courts could provide.
A man of deep faith himself, Kearns invited county faith leaders to meet with him about a joint coalition to share a message - the same message in each of the houses of worship, regardless of denomination.
The outcome of the prosecutor’s outreach was One Voice, an organization that calls for healing through faith communities. Its focus is to partner law enforcement with the county’s faith leaders with “one voice” in order to make a difference in some of the most difficult social issues - such as substance abuse - by working together to share the same message. It is managed by a steering committee comprised of the prosecutor, diverse faith leaders and the Safe Communities Coalition.
Each year, the organization focuses on a specific topic to be disseminated by the faith community and holds a seminar to discuss the topic in detail. This is its fourth year, and heroin is the subject. Kearns told faith leaders that they are the answer; they are the connection for people to their spiritual lives.
“Faith is a protective factor,” said Leslie Gabel, executive director of Hunterdon Prevention Resources. It’s not the only one, but along with communication in families that includes shared meals and parental involvement in schools and activities, she says it can support a feeling of belonging and being loved. The age group most at risk is from 18 to 35, but a strong family unit during childhood and the teenage years provides lasting protection.
The other piece of the addiction puzzle is where it begins, and often it’s in the family medicine cabinet.
“It’s important to understand the connection between heroin, opioids and opiates,” said Gabel. And that matters because of the change in the way prescription drugs are prescribed, in part due to the way insurance companies cover drugs.
Doctors prescribe more pills than might be necessary because of the co-pay cost involved with multiple prescriptions, she said, and the result is that many homes have a number of bottles of excess opioids in their cabinets. They might hold onto them for future use, again to save money should a need for the painkiller arise in the future.
Opioids are synthetic and heroin is natural; both give the user the same high, but heroin is much less expensive. “A pack of heroin is from three to six dollars,” Gabel said, and a one-month prescription for oxycodone is about 40 times that amount, or more.
The launch of this year’s topic begins Friday and will be addressed by faith leaders in their sermons this weekend. The same message will be delivered in the appropriate way for each denomination dependent on style. It’s the information that matters, and each pastor, rabbi, and imam will present it in his or her own way.
In the final analysis, a weak family dynamic, a sense of isolation, loneliness and sadness team up with opportunity and availability. Kearns and the county’s faith leaders believe that, if they can improve the former, it can change the outcome.
Though the basis of One Voice is spiritual, there is practical advice as well, such as lock up medicines, dispose of medications that are unused, expired, or unwanted - there are RX drop box locations at many police and state police buildings, the senior center, and at the courthouse in Flemington - and designate an adult to supervise proper dosages. For more information, visit safecoalition.org.