SOUTH PLAINFIELD - As the abuse of opioids among the youth of the nation continues to grow and death rates from overdose are on the rise, South Plainfield High School is taking a proactive approach to help stop the opioid epidemic in South Plainfield.  On Thursday, May 23rd, over seventy student leaders, hand selected by coaches, teachers and counselors, gathered in the high school’s Info Center for a special presentation of the Stop Opioid Abuse Program (SOAP).  

“We are no different than any other town in New Jersey regarding the abuse of opioids,” said Sam Fierra, Director of Guidance.   “Are we worse or better?  We’re not better, we’re not worse, but it’s the elephant in the room that could at any time wake up and cause mass destruction because it’s so deadly.”

South Plainfield High School is one of the first schools in the state to embrace the SOAP program, which will be launched statewide during the 2019-2020 school year as an initiative to educate high school students about avoiding opioid painkiller abuse, encouraging students to become proactive in the treatment of injuries and inquire about alternatives to opioids when prescribed by a doctor.

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“This crisis is not remote,” said Senator Patrick Diegnan.  “It’s not only real, it’s personal and it’s taking place in South Plainfield.  I cannot think of anything that is more important to alert our kids to.  This program is a means of addressing the problem of opioid abuse.”    

“The reality is that in New Jersey, we have a huge opioid epidemic,” said Mara Carlin, Coordinator of Coalition and Community Programs at WellSpring Center for Prevention.  “Last year, over 3,000 people died of a drug overdose, which is more than died in 9/11.  And those are only the people that died, not the people who were saved with Narcan.  Statistically, one out of four of us in New Jersey know someone or love someone who has a substance abuse disorder.  Nobody is immune.”   

The idea of the program is to identify about seventy student leaders throughout the school, which includes team captains, students government officers, presidents of school clubs and leaders in drama and music.  They are educated about opioids and the risks of taking them.  Resources and ongoing support are then made available as those school leaders disseminate the information to teammates and friends.

“The messages need to come from the peers,” said Fierra.  “The student leaders need to know what they’re talking about, so we present the information and ask them to go back and share it.  Go back and be an influential person and hopefully save people from this cycle of addiction because once the hooks get in, it’s over.” 

“I thought the opioid assembly was really informational,” said Julianne Ferrara, SPHS Student Athlete.  “It was good that we got to hear about the opioid crisis from different points of view from people who deal with it everyday.  I think that, by using a group of high school students, many other kids will start taking into consideration the dangers they are continuously being told about when dealing with opioids.” 

New Jersey’s scholastic athletes are the main focus of the program since they are statistically more likely to sustain injuries and be prescribed opioids, however, all high school students and young adults are at risk.  Studies indicate that almost half of all opioid deaths in the United States involve a prescription opioid so program organizers advise that education is the key to preventing tragic outcomes.

“Kids are susceptible to opioid addiction because opioids are too easy to get,” said Fierra.  “We have to do something.  The whole thing is we can’t sit back and just hope for the best because that’s not working.  We have to do something.”  

The program entails holding a forty minute assembly for high school students, featuring speakers who are substance abuse experts, pharmacists and school support staff.  A video is shown and time for questions is allotted. 

The main speaker of the first South Plainfield SOAP presentation was Bill Ashnault, Co-Owner of Twin City Pharmacy and father of Anthony Ashnault, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division One Wrestling Champion.  Bill Ashnault spoke to students from his experience as a pharmacist, former athlete and coach as well as parent of a student athlete.  He stressed the importance of education about the use of opioids, especially when it comes to treatment for injuries.

“You don’t need to take an opioid when you’re hurt,” said Ashnault.  “What we need to do as athletes and leaders is recognize that you don’t need an opioid.  When you’re hurt, your body just needs to heal.  My son, Anthony, is hurt right now.  He made the World Team on Sunday, but he tore his knee, so he was in New York yesterday and today.  He’s in a lot of pain, but he’s not taking an opioid.  He’s taking a non-narcotic medication, an anti-inflammatory.  Medications are help for your body to heal, they are not supposed to mask the symptoms.”

Ashnault is a board member of Garden State Pharmacy Owners, Inc., the organization that established the SOAP program in partnership with New Jersey State Interscholastic Athlete Association (NJSIAA), of which Ashnault has been a member for over thirty years.   

“I’m doing this to make a difference,” said Ashnault.  “We have a great coalition of people here and the best thing about this is that it’s not just one group.  We’re starting to put together a circle of groups that is really going to make this so much more productive.”

SOAP is a collaborative effort with additional partnerships that include: NJ CARES (Office of the Attorney General), New Jersey Department of Human Service/Division of Mental Health and Addictive Services, New Jersey Prevention Network and Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey.

“This is big program that’s kicking off right in this Info Center and the kick is going in the air to the rest of the state, but it starts here,” said Fierra, opening the assembly.  “Life is the most precious commodity there is.  You cannot buy life.  You cannot talk your way into it or out of it.  Unfortunately, we’re losing people at a rapid rate.  Today, we have a presentation about that.  This is a leadership assembly and you’re the leaders of the school starting September 5, 2019.”

Fierra introduced the many school officials, dignitaries and community supporters who attended the assembly including, Board of Education member Tom Cassio, State Senator Patrick Diegnan, First Grade Kennedy School Teacher Sandy Doyon, Assistant Principal Tamekia Grier-Dupiche, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Noreen Lishak, Athletic Director Kevin McCann, Principal Ron Spring, Michael Zushma, and the owner of McCriskin Funeral Home, Rick McCriskin.

Fierra then introduced Larry White, Executor Director of NJSIAA.

“NJSIAA is a group that oversees over 280,000 student athletes in 437 schools,” said White.  “This is really dear to my heart in the fact that we are losing kids and young adults.  Thank you for allowing me to be here.  We expect you to be the leaders to go out and then have this ripple effect.  You’re going to touch ten people and those ten will touch ten people and so forth.”

White asked that students make a difference when they leave the assembly by spreading the information about the dangers of opioids to their peers.

“We started this out with athletes,” said White.  “But we have a lot of leaders, not just athletes.  Leaders are sometimes head of the band, sometimes they’re head of the drama, sometimes they’re leaders in the community.  We want every leader to make a difference.”  

Ashnault was then welcomed to begin his presentation as the keynote speaker and he explained that opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and frequently prescribed pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, percocet and many others.  These substances affect the spinal cord and brain to reduce the intensity of pain-signal perception and areas of the brain that control emotion.

“I want to let you know how how this addiction starts, why is it such a problem and what do we need to do to prevent it,” said Ashnault.  “Sometime around 2000, pharmaceutical companies and physicians were promoting different ways to treat pain.   If you hurt your foot or broke your shoulder, you would get thirty oxycodone prescribed to you.  You would take those thirty oxycodone in five days.  After five days, you would go back to the doctor and if you weren’t better, he would prescribe another thirty days worth.”  

“Now, you’ve taken sixty tablets in fourteen days,” continued Ashnault.  “What happens is those drugs stay in parts of the brain bound to receptors in the brain, so it makes you want more.  It’s a spiral thing and the drug consumes your brain.  So twenty years ago, even seven years ago, that was the way physicians treated pain.  From there, we have this opioid addiction problem.”

The brain’s receptors, which are proteins in a cell membrane, bind to molecules like hormones, the body’s natural chemicals or drugs.   Ashnault compared the receptors to parking spots that the drug “parks in.”  The more opioids taken, the longer the receptor binds with the drug, causing the need for more, and taking up the parking spot so the receptors cannot function properly.

“When you take an opioid or you take any kind of drug, it goes into your brain and it looks for that parking space,” said Ashnault.  “If you take an opioid, such as an oxycodone, it goes into the space.  It’s called affinity.  It will stay in that parking space for seven days, sometimes thirty days.”

As an experienced pharmacist, Ashnault explained that there are many treatments for pain that do not involve narcotics.

“Is the opioid really helping you?” asked Ashnault.  “It’s not making you any better.  What it’s doing is masking the symptoms.  Yes, it’s good if you have a very severe, life ending condition or you have a major physical problem, but most athletes have an injury and don’t need to take an opioid.  That’s why we started this program with the athletes.”  

Ashnault stressed the importance of asking for alternative treatments so the injury can fully heal instead of covering up the issue with pain medication.

“What we have to do is find out the root of the problem,” said Ashnault.  “Find out what’s going on, why you’re hurt.  We just don’t treat it with medication anymore.  So if you’re an athlete or in the band or drama and you get hurt, you need to find out what’s wrong and that’s how you treat it.  You treat it with therapy.  You treat it with rehab.  If you’re hurt, you go see someone who can help you with those issues.”  

Ashnault explained that those who take opioids are forty times more likely to go on to seek out heroin. Oftentimes, when the prescription runs out, a cheap and easily obtained alternative is heroin, which is an illegal, highly addictive drug processed from morphine that stimulates the same response in the brain as prescribed opioids.

“When you take opioid medications and they get stuck in these receptors in the brain, it leads to other things because your brain always chases this high, so we want to be aware of that,” said Ashnault.  “Heroin is a huge issue here.” 

Ashnault also warned students about the dangers of smoking marijuana.  Through cross breeding of marijuana plants, the potency of marijuana has greatly increased over the years.  As a result, additives are added by drug dealers to bulk up the volume of the product they sell.

“Everybody thinks that cannabis or marijuana is okay,” said Ashnault.  “Well, I can tell you that it’s not okay.  Drug dealers don’t think it’s ok.  Drug dealers are in it for money.  They’re not your friends.  It’s a financial gain for them.  This is the drug that is the root of so many problems for young people and old people.  Marijuana is 14% more potent than it was twenty-five years ago.  As drug dealers, they know that, so they put less of that product in it and they treat it with all of these other products.”  

According to Ashnault, illegally sold marijuana often has added products like Carfentanil, a synthetic form of the opioid fentanyl, which has approximately a hundred times stronger effects than fentanyl and thousands of times stronger than heroin. 

“Carfentanil is 10,000 times more potent than any opioid or any drug on the market,” said Ashnault.  “You only need to smoke this twice in a marijuana cigarette to have addictive problems.  You can look at studies and see the downward spiral of drug use.  A person will smoke marijuana treated with Carfentanil.  The next day they feel awful and have another marijuana cigarette to feel better.  Now they smoked it twice.  Are they addicted?  Not yet, but it snowballs on.”  

A video was then shown that will be mandatory for all South Plainfield athletes to watch in the 2019-2020 school year.  The video included interviews of two high school athletes who spoke of their journeys from injury to addiction.  Each teen athlete had a promising future, but were prescribed drugs like vicodin, oxycodone and percocet for injuries sustained while playing for school teams.  

“Every single person who plays a sport will be watching the video that you guys are seeing for the first time,” said Fierra.  “It’s mandatory.”

As explained by medical professionals in the video and by the two former athletes as they shared their stories, when the medication was no longer available, the athletes turned to similar drugs of abuse sold on the street.  Medical professionals explained that the adolescent brain is growing and changing and more vulnerable.  They described how many heroin addicts say their problem started after taking prescribed opioids.  They developed tolerance to those medications and needed more of it in order to satisfy their addiction needs. 

“The athletes’ dreams are gone,” said Ashnault after the video ended.   “We often think that pain medication is going to make an injury better, but it doesn’t make it better, it just masks the symptoms.  Many say that they wished they never tried opioids that first time because that’s what started the whole thing.  Everyone is vulnerable to opioid addiction.”

“As you see in the video, these kids were athletes, fourteen and fifteen, freshman and sophomore,” said Fierra as he thanked Ashnault for sharing what he has learned about opioids over his decades of experience. “They were athletes, who got hurt, went to the doctor and listened to their doctor.  This was back when they didn’t realize how bad these pills were.  Do you think they meant to be junkies?  These were athletes.  This drug takes over.”  

Fierra then introduced the next speaker, Mara Carlin, Coordinator of Coalition and Community Programs at WellSpring Center for Prevention. 

“We do substance abuse prevention throughout all of Middlesex County, but I specifically coordinate a coalition called the Coalition for Healthy Communities,” said Carlin.  “There are a few things you can do right now.  The first is if you love someone or know someone, especially in school, that needs some help, know that there are resources available.”

Carlin reminded students that they are always able to find support in South Plainfield’s Student Assistant Counselor (SAC), Rhonda Green.   The SAC counselors are in Grant School and the Middle School as well and are available as trusted resources to counsel students regarding anything related to drugs, alcohol, tobacco use and other addictive habits.  

“Most of the things that we do with the Coalition for Healthy Communities are youth led,” said Carlin.  “So we have a youth coalition that works on youth projects to really raise awareness about the substance misuse problems that are going on within the community, specifically what you can do in your community.  We work with the majority of the groups in Middlesex County.” 

Carlin urged students to form leadership groups and pledge to take care of their friends.  She suggested mounting posters throughout the school to raise awareness and spoke about Sticker Shock, a program where teens go into restaurants and ask to put stickers on the pizza boxes as reminders not to serve or give alcohol to minors.

“The message is much more powerful from you guys than it is from someone like me, so having youth get involved and having the community know that the youth in their town actually care about this is really important,” said Carlin.  

Vaping has become a widespread issue and Carlin explained how the vaping marketing is targeting the youth, so many youth leaders are focusing on a new youth tobacco action.

“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there’s a vaping problem in your school because there’s a vaping problem in every middle school and high school,” said Carlin.  “So if you’re concerned about that, there’s a statewide group that is forming now that you can actually join to help make a difference.  So you can do it on a county level, on your school level and then you can even work and do it on your state level.”

The reality of the world today is that many will be exposed to drugs and alcohol.  Carlin explained to students that they have legal protection if they need to call for help.

“If you’re with someone and they need help, this is specific to New Jersey, there’s something called the 911 Legislation or the Good Samaritan Law,” said Carlin.  “It’s very important to every single one of you to know this.  If you are with somebody who is overdosing on alcohol, on other drugs, on opioids, if you think that someone needs medical attention, you can call 911 and stay with that person.  Legally, you will not get in trouble, even if there’s underage drinking, even if there's weed, even if there’s other substances there.”

Carlin reiterated the importance of knowing the information and spreading the word about the dangers of opioids, but gave students suggestions to get involved with organizations to help stop the opioid crisis on an even larger scale.

“Being youth leaders, it’s important to know this information and to know that if you get hurt, you don’t have to take an opioid, even if the doctor gives it to you,” said Carlin. “There’s many other ways to deal with your pain, but what you can also do, is get involved with your community to make a difference so that by the time that you’re in college, or young adults, this epidemic that we’re seeing with opioids and young people, will start to go away.  The only way to really make that difference is for you guys to actually get involved.”

Fierra then introduced Diegnan, who stood in the back of the room with several community members. 

“I’d like you all to turn around for a minute,” said Diegnan.  “This is not remote, this is real.  When you used to talk to my generation about drug addiction, you talked inner cities, in another town or another place, but this is real in South Plainfield.”  

Diegnan introduced a group of community supporters who are helping to spread awareness about the issue of drug addiction.

“Many of you may have had Mrs. Doyon in first grade,” said Diegnan.  “She suffered an unimaginable tragedy when she lost her son, Tommy, from the opioid crisis, an outstanding young man who we used to refer as the future mayor.  Ricky McCriskin, who is our Funeral Director here in South Plainfield, is also here. Ricky said you will not imagine the number of funerals that he deals with as a result of the opioid crisis.  Mike Zushma is here, who works with our Rescue Squad and was our Emergency Management Director.  He actually goes to the scenes.  And Bill Ashnault, who is the number one pharmacist in South Plainfield.  Does Bill really need to do this?   They are here because they care.”

“These are the real heroes of what’s going on,” said Diegnan.  “We’re forming a South Plainfield group.  We’re going to actually make this personal to our town and what’s going on in our town.  I think this is the most important thing that I’ve dealt with the entire time I’ve been down in Trenton.  Nothing comes close to this because these are real lives.  You guys are the leaders.  We respect you.  Thank you for being here, but please, let today be the first day you get involved in this, not the last day.”

“It’s up to you,” said Fierra closing the presentation.  “Kids do not necessarily take messages from adults to heart.  When I was a kid I didn’t, we didn’t.  Why would be expect you to?  So this is why we’re giving you this information.” 

Organizers of the program say that the most important way to be proactive in preventing opioid addiction is education.   Ashnault advised students of the best practices for sports injuries, providing them with the following list:  

  1. Know that most sports-related pain can be managed without narcotic drugs.
  2. Follow your doctor’s instructions for treatment.
  3. Ask about alternatives to opioids.
  4. Safely dispose of unused pills when you no longer need them.
  5. Support your teammates while they are recovering from injuries.
  6. Do not rely on pain medicine to get back on the field before you are ready.

“Children and young adults have so many pressures,” said Ashnault.  “They’re pressured to be the best of what they can be.  And that’s what we want them to be, but we don’t want them to take short cuts.  We want to make sure that physically, if they’re injured, that they get the right treatment and find out what the issues are.  We don’t want to mask it with opioids.  Masking symptoms just leads to other issues down the road.”  

“The opioid epidemic is one of these issues that everybody agrees on,” said Diegnan.  “It’s a crisis.  South Plainfield is the best town in the world to be brought up in.  We love each other.  We care about each other.  Look at our sports teams.  Look at the way we succeed.  Look at the colleges that everyone goes to.  But this is a real thing and all that’s going on today is when you see a friend and something doesn’t seem quite right, do something about it because you can help.” 

“So if you want to make a difference for the positive, which you all do anyway,” said Fierra to the students.  “This is information that you can take with you.  If you’re on a sports team and somebody gets hurt and is going to the Emergency Room, you can go over and tell them to make sure what the doctors give them is not habit forming.  People might seek you out and ask you things.  You have the power and influence to make things go up or down.  I’m not going to sugar coat it. If someone you know gets involved in drugs, it’s only going one way.”