March 9, 2016

“Heroin & Opiates: They’re Here”— Community Forum Confronts “Pandemic”

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it’s going to take a village to save them,” Michael De Leon, founder of Steered Straight, former drug addict and prison inmate, told the audience of about 120 in the Princeton High School Auditorium last Wednesday night.

“Don’t believe it’s not your kid,” said Mr. De Leon.  “Don’t believe it’s not your family.  Don’t believe it’s not in your backyard—because it is.”

If it was an epidemic in the 1970s, heroin use is a pandemic now, according to Mr. De Leon, also founder of Project Pride, an organization that sends prison inmates into middle schools and high schools to talk with students about choices and consequences of drug use.

Sponsored by the Princeton Health Department, Corner House, the Princeton Alcohol and Drug Alliance and the Princeton Police Department (PPD), the two-hour forum featured a keynote address by Mr. De Leon followed by a panel discussion, moderated by Gary De Blasio, director of Health, Youth and Community Services; with Angelo Onofri, Mercer County Acting Prosecutor; Jennifer Moran, chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office; Lt. Geoff Maurer of the PPD; Dan Smith, clinical director at Corner House; and Mr. De Leon.

Again and again, Mr. DeLeon’s message and the main themes of the evening coincided:  The heroin crisis is in the suburbs and rural areas as well as the cities.  It afflicts families of all incomes and levels of society. The majority of heroin users are in the 18-30 age range, but the problem doesn’t begin with heroin. It begins with tobacco use, marijuana use, underage drinking, and drugs actually prescribed by a doctor.

“We need to talk about this,” Mr. De Leon stated.  “Talk to your kids about drugs over dinner.  It’s a conversation you have to have every week.  Get informed.  You need to know.  The more you know the better off you are.”

Mr. De Leon, who spent 12 years in state prison and two years in a halfway house, knew that he was “part of the problem,” but he decided, “when I got out of prison, I’m going to be a big part of the solution.”    He described counseling 26 young drug users in the Cherry Hill area four years ago, when, in a span of ten days “four of those kids died—all middle or upper middle class, two-parent households, with every protective factor you can have.”

Interviewing in Camden for his documentary Kids are Dying, Mr. De Leon talked to youths in the street and found they were all from somewhere else, mostly suburban and rural New Jersey.  Of the 137 young people he interviewed over a ten-month period, 121 used prescription opiates before they got hooked on heroin.  “Every single one of them smoked cigarettes.  Every single one of them drank alcohol underage, and every single one of them smoked weed.”

“We have to end this scourge,” he said.  “We have to end this epidemic.  It’s possible.  If I can recover from the heroin I was shooting, anybody can recover.”

In the panel discussion, Mr. Onofri reinforced Mr. DeLeon’s warning, pointing out that there are 669,000 heroin users in the U.S., an increase of 79 percent since 2007, and 81 percent of those users started with prescription drugs.  Of the approximately 120 opioid deaths per day in the U.S. about 60 are from heroin, according to Mr. Onofri.

Exacerbating the epidemic in Mercer County are the facts that heroin is cheap—only $3 a deck (the size of a Splenda packet), purity levels in New Jersey are the highest in the nation, and Mercer County is located between major sources of heroin from Perth Amboy, Newark and New York City to the north and Camden and Philadelphia to the south.

Emphasizing that heroin is indeed “here,” Mr. Maurer noted the PPD training and use of Narcan to reverse overdoses and described a dramatic “reversal” that took place last April on Nassau Street.  A young woman, who was brought downstairs from an apartment above Starbucks and placed on a bench on the sidewalk, “became unconscious—pretty much stopped breathing,” Mr. Maurer stated.  The police gave her Narcan and waited for the rescue squad to arrive.  Her eyes rolled back in her head, according to Mr. Maurer. Then they gave her a second dose of Narcan, before her eyes finally began to flutter and she regained consciousness and was taken to the hospital.

“Everybody has to realize,” he said, “that it can happen here, that it has happened here.”

As Mr. DeBlasio pointed out in his introduction, “heroin is the real equalizer in every community.  I’ve seen it cross all boundaries of society.  It not only hurts families. It destroys them.”

The panelists and sponsors of the forum all reaffirmed that there are many sources of help.  “Effective treatment is available for every level of care,” Mr. Smith declared.  “Medications to combat heroin are getting more useful.  Care can be provided in every situation.”

Ms. Moran stated that the prosecutor’s office also sees rehabilitation as the main goal and that Corner House is a key partner in that effort.  “We’re all about rehabilitation,” she said, “trying to fix the problem.”

The Overdose Prevention Act in New Jersey provides criminal immunity for the caller reporting and others helping a heroin user and for the people in need.  In the case of users, the person who has overdosed is usually treated by medical authorities rather than police.