ELIZABETH, NJ – Former Governor James McGreevey, as the keynote speaker at Trinitas’s program on addiction, May 20, told the audience of healthcare professionals and social workers some startling facts about the epidemic of heroin and drug use sweeping the country, especially in New Jersey.

“Heroin use has increased 200 percent in the last five years, and there has been a 700 percent increase in drug and alcohol abuse the last decade,” the governor told those attending How Addiction Affect our Communities: A Model for Successful Healthcare Integration, held at the Cranford campus of Union County College. “There are now 128,000 heroin addicts in New Jersey, and there have been more than 5,000 heroin-related deaths here since 2004.”

In addition to McGreevey, currently the executive director of Jersey City’s employment and training program, the Trinitas program included Valerie Mielke, assistant commissioner of New Jersey Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services and Celina Levy, executive director of the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse.

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According to McGreevey, heroin’s new found popularity stems from the illicit use of prescription drugs that serve as an entrée to the more powerful drug. There has been a 300 percent increase in the use of painkillers, and users, half of whom are 25 years old and younger, often start with prescription opioids. They then slip into heroin use, made easier because the drug can now be snorted instead of injected with a needle. Heroin is also cheaper than other drugs. “One prescription pill costs between $8 and $20, while a bag of heroin is $5,” said McGreevey, but what makes heroin so addictive is its street purity level of 40 to 80 percent, making it that more potent and addictive.

Combating this epidemic will require the combined efforts law enforcement, hospitals, and social service, McGreevey said. “The crisis before us is a public health crisis,” said McGreevey. “Access to treatment is a critical concern. Young people are dying. All sectors of the New Jersey public community have to play a part.”

While he called for stiffer penalties for doctors and pharmacies that write or fill illegal prescriptions for painkillers, McGreevey felt that incarceration is not the answer. The typical response to drug arrests is to throw addicts in jail where they would not receive treatment, he said. The U.S has 20 percent of the world’s incarcerated populations, and 70 percent of those inmates are addicts, of which 40 percent also have a mental illness. Only 11 percent of addicts receive treatment while in prison. “So they come out still addicted and go back to what they did before,” he said. “Today, in jails and prisons, we have incarcerated an addicted population.

“We have to change the easy solution of incarceration and take on the messy process of treatment because that is where souls will be saved, that is where lives will be saved, and that is where we will all fight the scourge of heroin addiction.”