UNION COUNTY, NJ — In 2018, 133 Union County residents died of an opioid overdose, approximately double the number of people who died from a drug overdose in 2015, according to county data.

Several county initiatives, including Operation Helping Hand and the CLEAR Program, are designed to reduce the impact of the opioid epidemic. These and other county programs were detailed in a  presentation Tuesday night in Linden.

Operation Helping Hand, a week-long program conducted by the Prosecutor’s Office, provides a staff of recovery coaches to speak with people who are either arrested for drug-related charges or who walk in to receive assistance. Assistant Prosecutor Julie Peterman and Lieutenant Bill Mannix explained how the program works.

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Union County is one of six counties in the state to have this program, which was first implemented by state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, Peterman said.

The county has so far had two one-week periods of the program. During the first period last June, 102 people made contact with the Prosecutor’s Office (100 by arrest and 2 walk-ins), and 83 of these received help from a recovery coach.

Meanwhile, between May 13 and May 17, there were 148 contacts, 25 of which were walk-ins. Eighty-eight percent of these contacts opted to receive help during this period.

“This is a program that we believe strongly in, and we want to see this work,” Peterman said. “We don’t expect that the road to recovery is a straight road with no offshoots or no wrong turns, so we want to be there to do this again if we need to.”

Although participation in the program does not allow prosecutors to clear criminal charges, Peterman said the Prosecutor’s Office takes the participation into consideration.

“Their charges continue, but we do make their pursuing help known to the judge that handles their case,” Peterman said.

The Community Law Enforcement Addiction Recovery Program, or CLEAR, facilitates connections between people struggling with addiction and recovery coaches. After individuals walk in to a designated location, a recovery specialist is sent to the walk-in location to help them develop a plan for recovery, which can include either staying in a treatment facility or receiving community support.

People who participate in the CLEAR Program are not charged for drug offenses if they turn in their narcotics, Union County Police Chief Chris Debbie said. Since its launch in June 2017, 101 people have participated in the CLEAR Program.

“The CLEAR program offers a stopping point for addicts,” Debbie said. “Any point in time they feel like they need help, they can come to either the County Police Department, the Prosecutor’s Office, or the Sheriff’s Department.”

Prevention Links is an organization that has been facilitating recovery services in Union County for nearly 50 years. The organization provides recovery coaches for both Operation Helping Hand and the CLEAR Program.

Preventions Links Director Morgan Thompson discussed the organization’s goals, as well as how her own personal story influences her work.

“I am a person in long-term recovery, and I feel very compelled to speak out about my experience,” Thompson said. She explained that, after beginning to experiment with drugs and alcohol in middle school, she became a daily user in high school.

After having trouble completing college and holding a job, Thompson said, she sought help at age 18.

“Addiction is a chronic condition, regardless of the substance," said Thompson, who has maintained her recovery for 10 years. "The supports that are needed are very long-term.”

The county's programs are often the first step toward a person's recovery, she noted.

“The CLEAR Program and Operation Helping Hand … are entry points, and we look for more opportunities to create entry points,” Thompson said.

Prevention Links provides additional services for people facing addiction and their families. These services are explained on the organization’s website.

Union County Public Safety Director Andrew Moran and Debbie said all of the county's police officers, EMS personnel and dispatchers have received training to use the opioid addiction reversal drug nasal spray, naloxone, also called Narcan.

Officer Ashley Yaskinski conducted a canine demonstration and state health officials detailed resources on treating opioid abuse available from the New Jersey Department of Health.

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