PATERSON, NJ - Through a three-pronged approach that includes prevention, enforcement, and treatment New Jersey is making progress on the war against opioids, but not enough, the state’s top lawman said at a press conference outside Mayor Andre Sayegh’s office on Wednesday.
In another effort to bring a stop to the “endless cycle of drug arrests, overdose deaths, and narcan saves,” New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced that Paterson is one of five cities statewide to receive a nearly $150,000 grant to create an Opioid Response Team (ORT).
Newark, Camden, Trenton, and Toms River also received funding towards the initiative that will link police officers, EMS personnel, and case workers together, tasking them with responding to drug emergencies.
Grewal shared that in 2018 nearly 2,000 individuals were arrested in Paterson on drug charges, many, he said, “trying desperately to fuel their habits, not so much to get high but to avoid the consequences of withdrawal.” Drug overdoses accounted for 196 deaths in Passaic County in 2018, and, he added, law enforcement officials administered Naxolone, the medication used to reverse the effects of opioids, 768 times in Passaic County during the same timeframe.
While those numbers “understate the scope of the problem,” he continued, they prove that the “traditional approach to this epidemic has not been working.”
“We know that the minutes and hours after an overdose, an arrest, or another drug-related crisis offer drug users an important opportunity to get the help they need to turn their lives around,” said Grewal. “These Opioid Response Teams will be trained to spring into action at a moment’s notice, day or night, to ensure that drug users experiencing a crisis know that the door to treatment and recovery support services is always open.”
Welcoming the grant announcement and innovative new approach was Sayegh who referred to a recent episode of A&E’s “Live Rescue” television series during which Paterson Fire Department EMS workers deployed the lifesaving overdose antidote 12 times in a two-hour time frame.
Bringing that to television screens across America, Sayegh said, “showed what we are up against,” before turning to the guests behind him, including Grewal, Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes, Paterson’s top public safety officials, staff from St. Joseph’s Health, and representatives from Eva’s Village, and saying that “we’re not alone in this.”
Members of Paterson’s ORT won’t just respond to emergencies, Sayegh said, but will also “work proactively to tackle this ongoing crisis in our community.”
Their efforts will also include patrolling on foot and by car where drug sales are common to identify individuals who may be in need of rehabilitation services, as well as distributing educational materials outlining available services individuals can access.
“The ultimate goal is to disrupt the cycle of addiction before an overdose or arrest.”
Two of Paterson’s representatives to the New Jersey Legislature were on hand at the announcement with Senator Nellie Pou saying that the response team has the potential to save hundreds of lives locally and be a model for response teams around the state, and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly sharing his hope that more can be done to help residents ensnared by addiction, “but only with the right resources in place.”
Offering reporters the opportunity to ask questions Grewal pushed back on assertions that law enforcement wasn’t doing enough to bring an end to what one called “open air drug markets in Paterson.”
“It’s not like TV,” he said, adding that it takes intelligence and time to dismantle drug rings like law enforcement officials did in August when a long term investigation led to 10 arrests and the dismantling of major fentanyl production, packaging, and distribution network,
Before concluding Grewal committed to continuing to work to “disrupt” patterns of violence through “force multipliers” such as utilizing New Jersey State Police resources like what was done during the past weekend’s crime suppression operation that netted 30 arrests, removed five guns from the streets, and led to the confiscation nearly 1,000 glassines of heroin, while clarifying that the fight against opioids is “not a law enforcement issue alone.”
While leaders must get to the “root causes” of drugs and violence, including by “giving young people a different path,” Grewal said, he offered optimistically that “together we will push back this epidemic.”
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