CLARK, NJ - Immediately following the most recent rock carnival at Oak Ridge Park that drew fans from all over the area, including Warren, a resident posted a photo to Facebook of a hypodermic needle he found on his front lawn.
Replies to his post were many and passionate. Was it illegal heroin or a diabetic’s insulin? Was it a direct cause of the concert? Was it an isolated incident? Was it indicative of a larger problem? And was it only Clark’s problem? Speculation ran rampant.
Just days later, another Clark neighbor posted a picture of a syringe in the Quick Chek parking lot, and then someone else posted a photo of one found on Prospect Street.
All Warren Township police officers received training in the use of Narcan in September 2014.The first Narcan save by the Warren Township Police was not quite one year ago when police responded to a report of an unresponsive female on Thanksgiving night, Nov. 27.
According to Clark Police Chief Pedro Matos, these dropped syringes are not an everyday occurrence. The department responds to six to 12 incidences of narcotics or needles found on the street each year. Although he could not confirm what was in the syringes, he thought it was unlikely to be insulin.
When called, the department sends an officer to pick up the needle and then has it destroyed. Matos said the syringes are not tested to determine what substance may have been in it.
“If an officer sees it [being dropped], and the person is not a diabetic and could be charged with possessing narcotics, then we would test it,” Matos said. “In the absence of a suspect and actually seeing someone drop the needle, there is no reason to send it to be tested.”
Mayor Sal Bonaccorso had seen the posts to social media and acknowledged that Clark has had its share of narcotics usage in town.
“Do I think we have users in Clark? Yes, I think we do,” Bonaccorso said. “We’ve had kids OD (overdose); some were saved and are on the straight and narrow, and some we lost. I’m not taking a blasé approach. As mayor, one needle is as concerning to me as 100 and no one is more against this than me. At the end of the day, we have to be on top of it, but it exists.”
He does not believe the rock concert is at the root of the problem. “Was every person at the rock concert on the straight and narrow? No,” he said. “But there were a lot of good people there. With tens of thousands coming through, there were no drug arrests, no overdoses. One [needle] is too much, but it’s not a reason to shut it down.”
TAP into Summit reports that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2002 and 2013, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled, and more than 8,200 people died in 2013.
Furthermore, the CDC details that heroin use more than doubled among young adults ages 18–25 in the past decade, and more than 9 in 10 people who used heroin also used at least one other drug. Forty-five percent of people who used heroin were also addicted to prescription opioid painkillers.
Matos could not speculate on the number of active users in Clark and said he would have no way to determine that number. He does point to a reduction in the department’s use of Narcan, but emphasized that while Narcan reduces overdose deaths, it does not reduce heroin use or overdose.
Narcan, or Naloxone, is a nasal spray administered by police first-responders when a narcotics overdose has been determined. The spray reverses the effects of the opioid. The spray was distributed to all county police departments by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office in June, 2014 and the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office in September, 2014. Clark was the first county town to use it, on July 4, 2014.
“From June to December of 2014 we had four deployments; this year from January to date, there have just been two,” Matos said. He thinks the reduction is due to increased education in rehab centers, as many of the overdose victims the department sees have recently completed a rehabilitation program.
Is it only a Clark problem? The answer lies in the local news. A “TAP into” search turns up reports of Narcan use by police departments in Warren, Summit, New Providence, Berkeley Heights, and in other Middlesex, Somerset and Sussex counties. Police blotters throughout the “Tap into” coverage area consistently include arrests for controlled dangerous substances (CDS).
As for the needles on the ground, they’re not only a Clark problem either.
Just days after the Clark Facebook posts, John Luerssen of Westfield posted a photo to a Westfield Facebook group. “Heroin at the bus stop in my beloved colonial town?” Luersson asked. The question appeared with a photo of two needles on the ground.
Bonaccorso summed it up.
“We’re no worse or any better than other suburban town,” he said.