Heroin Epidemic in New Jersey

In recent years, a rapid increase in the use, distribution and fatalities linked to heroin have skyrocketed. In a several-part series, we are taking a closer look into the emergence of areas labeled “Herointowns”, which are popping up across the country. These typically suburban and rural areas have, in the past, lay dormant to inflated drug use and activity – or were unnoticed until recently. But in the wake of our countries most dramatic rise in heroin overdoses, the news media has shifted the focus, prompting scrutiny and investigation outside of the traditional regions – large metropolitan areas – which in the past were exclusively linked to the drug trade. In sharing some of the most recent statistical data and prominent headlines, we hope to educate readers on the dangers of today’s heroin, and shed some light on how it has moved from the projects, to Main Street.

The Garden State

New Jersey has long been a significant hot zone for illicit drug activity because of its close proximity to New York, and the ease of access through its ports all along the eastern coast, like Port Elizabeth and Port Newark. However, it’s only been in the last few years that the activity has shifted outside of the more well-known areas such as Paterson, Camden, Newark and Atlantic City.

Paterson is one of the largest epicenters for drug distribution in the country, and has more than 30 points of entry surrounding it, connecting some of the region’s wealthiest communities to it. Some members of law enforcement estimates that 300 people from surrounding suburbs travel to Paterson, AKA “Heroin Alley”, to cop every single day. Camden County, the county which reported the most overdose deaths in 2014, shared that of the hundreds of overdose cases they handled last year, about half of them were from residents of neighboring townships: suburbanites traveling to the city to cop heroin.

Statistical data on overdose deaths in 2014 points to an overwhelming number of victims in smaller municipalities, often considered middle class. In the last decade, the number of overdose deaths has quadrupled in our country. New Jersey’s rate is triple the national average. Leading New Jersey Counties for overdose deaths, in order, were Camden, Middlesex, Ocean, Monmouth and Essex.

Which brings up a surprising fact about the current demographic of heroin and opiate abusers. Long considered a drug of choice for minorities and the impoverished, since 2011, statistics show that more Caucasian people have died from opiate overdoses than Hispanics and African Americans, who once led the rankings. Camden County has purchased 4 billboards with the slogan “Heroin. Pills. It All Kills.”, featuring a clean-cut Caucasian teenager. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recently released the following demographic information, stating that “In 2000, black Americans aged 45-64 had the highest death rate for drug poisoning involving heroin. Now, white people aged 18-44 have the highest rate. The share of people who say they have used heroin in the past year is actually decreasing for non-whites. Heroin has taken hold of the white suburbs, which has prompted more attention.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said “Heroin in the State is more pure than it’s ever been.”  Batches are being laced with other substances, like fentanyl, which contributed to 143 deaths in the State last year. Thomas Friedan, the director of the CDC, said that “Around one in 50 (heroin-users) may die each year from their addiction.” Considering heroin only costs $4 to $6 dollars a bag on the street, while prescription drugs can run a user between five and six times that, it’s no wonder the increase in heroin use is so great, as the necessity to feed the addiction never ceases, while concurrently resources do.

At least 781 people died of heroin-related overdoses in New Jersey in 2014, which does not take into account overdoses that happened outside of the State, or those that were not reported. In 2010, there were just 306, highlighting the dramatic growth of this crisis. Experts estimate that the actual number may be twice what was actually calculated, and reports have said that the number of deaths today linked to heroin and opiate use mimics death toll rates for AIDS at its peak. Opiate related deaths now eclipses homicide, suicide, car accidents and AIDS as a cause of death in the New Jersey, now considered the “number-one healthcare crisis” in the State.

In Williamstown, a community located in Monroe Township, Gloucester County, the heroin death rate in 2014 was nearly 25 times the national average, where at least 53 people died. In the County, the heroin death rate was nearly 7 times the national average, according to the New Jersey Department of Health.

The heroin and opiate epidemic is much, much larger than even the death tolls illustrate. Hundreds of individuals have been revived from overdoses by Narcan injections (Naloxone) as part of the “Overdose Prevention Act” which has been adopted increasingly by municipalities since 2013. This powerful drug reverses the effects of heroin if injected early enough, but does little to help users kick their habit. In just the first few months, Monmouth and Ocean Counties estimated that Narcan injections saved the lives of over 200 individuals.

Addiction Treatment is widely considered the most successful way to help opioid users reach abstinence. New Jersey has notoriously been linked to a limited amount of treatment options for their residents, especially those with little or no health insurance. However, the number of admissions for opioid use in 2014 illustrates again the overwhelming affect this sweeping epidemic is having on the State.

In 2014, 49% of all admissions for treatment were connected to opioid use. For New Jersey, that equated to more than 28,000 of the over 65,000 people admitted for treatment, according to the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services. Ocean County accounted for the highest segment of this group.

While larger cities still rank among the top 5 regions associated with the highest intakes, the successive towns may surprise you. With just a few less intakes in 2014, Brick Township registered #5 in the State, with 550 individuals who sought treatment for opioid addiction. Following just behind were Elizabeth, Toms River, Vineland and Trenton. Also in the top 20 were Middletown, Lacey, Millville, Cherry Hill, Woodbridge and Bloomfield.

The heroin epidemic is not just an issue for the end user. Increasingly, law enforcement is seeing a branching out of the dispensary and distribution networks of heroin around the State, infiltrating into sleepier towns where the illicit activity can remain relatively unnoticed. “They pick residential areas because they’re out of the way,” said Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli. “It doesn’t look like much. But in fact it’s a stash house for large-scale drug operations.” Authorities claim that the bulk of the drugs come in from nearby hubs and are transferred to stash houses and mills to be packaged.

Since 2007, State law enforcement has shifted from targeting cocaine and other drugs to focus on combatting heroin mills and distributors. State police and New Jersey DEA agents have broken up more than 50 mills over the past decade, about half of them in suburban locations, and have seized a combined total of about 1,000 kilos of raw heroin, according to an analysis of data provided by both agencies.

If you are a resident of New Jersey, and are still not convinced of the hotbed of heroin activity that is affecting the entire State, especially small municipalities, consider the following headlines, all of which made front page news in the last 5 years:

PASSAIC — City police dismantled a heroin mill in a beauty salon that was a front for the drugs, seizing $50,000 worth of drugs after a four-month investigation.

CLOSTER — A heroin packaging plant was uncovered in a typical suburban house in Closter at the center of a sprawling distribution network that spanned at least two states and delivered large quantities of the drug across North Jersey and possibly beyond.

PARAMUS — More than 300 people were arrested in an eight-week effort aimed at combating the surge of heroin abuse across northern New Jersey. About 100 of those arrested were from Bergen, another 180 from Passaic and about 40 from Morris County.

HACKENSACK — At the Avalon Hackensack at Riverside development in north Hackensack, officials raided an operation where heroin was subdivided into even smaller units and sold to street-level dealers.

PALISADES PARK — Two members of the Bergen County Police Department’s Anti-Heroin Unit seized nearly 1,500 bags of suspected heroin during a traffic stop.

FORT LEE — In April 2011, police raided a two-family home on Grandview Place in Fort Lee where a woman at a kitchen table was stamping glassine bags filled with heroin.

ELMWOOD PARK — In June 2010, a kilogram of heroin and paraphernalia were found in an Elmwood Park house where 10 workers packaged the drug for street sales.

WEST NEW YORK — In January 2011, five men were arrested and 2 kilos of heroin were seized from a mill.

BELLEVILLE — In December 2011, investigators found a heroin mill in Belleville operating under the oversight of an Elizabeth street gang and seized 2 kilos.

CLIFFSIDE PARK — In December 2012, officials found $6 million worth of heroin and crystal methamphetamine in a suburban home in Cliffside Park. A New York man was arrested with 2 kilos of heroin packed into the soles of his shoes and strapped around his waist, and 16 more pounds of the drug were found inside ready to be milled.

MAYWOOD — A tiny mill on South Elm Street in Maywood was raided. A backpack-toting heroin dealer was arrested as horrified neighbors watched. Inside the tidy ranch-style home, investigators seized 85 bricks — more than 4,200 doses — of heroin.

BRICK — Following a two-month long investigation into heroin distribution, members of the Brick Police Drug Enforcement Unit arrested three people in July 2011 and recovered 250 bags of heroin.

JERSEY CITY — In August 2013, Jersey City police arrested a 15-year-old boy and seized 59 bags of suspected heroin after doing surveillance on Van Nostrand Avenue because of numerous complaints of drug trafficking in the area.

NEWARK — Two Newark men were among four people arrested in Massachusetts and charged with transporting more than 1,000 bags of heroin, the Massachusetts State Police announced.

GALLOWAY — Two Galloway men allegedly ran a drug mill that was off-the-radar of local law enforcement for months; until this summer, when they were both nabbed – in plain sight.

TOMS RIVER —Toms River and Brick cops teamed up to bust two suspected township heroin dealers, seizing 1,284 wax folds of the drug, more than $12,000 in cash, a stolen gun and two cars in the process.

VINELAND — Police arrested two people after discovering more than 1,000 bags of heroin following a traffic stop in Vineland.

LACEY — Police charged six local residents after discovering drugs being dealt at the Lacey branch of the Ocean County Library.

JACKSON — Two Ocean County residents, including one from Brick, were arrested in a raid at a Jackson home where police seized 240 wax folds of heroin.

PLAINFIELD — In June 2011, 18 people were arrested and 150 bags of heroin recovered as part of a Plainfield-wide drug sweep performed with the assistance of Union County, state and federal agents.

WOODBRIDGE — In November 2013, police were conducting a traffic stop in Woodbridge Township when they discovered that the driver they had pulled over was transporting five bricks of heroin.

EDISON — In May 2013, the township assisted in a State Police-organized sweep that broke up a major heroin distribution ring that reached into six counties (drug bust site in New Brunswick)