njherald.com: Even more effort needed to reverse the opioid crisis


"The problem is in our backyard and it's a significant one."

Such was the assessment of Dr. Anthony Brutico, medical director of emergency services at Newton Medical Center and one of the panelists at a Knock Out Opioid Abuse town hall meeting held Friday in Newton.

Putting statistics to that problem, Francis Koch, Sussex County prosecutor, another panelist, said the number of deaths in the county attributed to opioid overdose rose 176 percent in a four-year period -- 13 in 2013, 17 in 2014, 25 in 2015 and 36 last year. This year's count through August stands at 21.

Adding to the chilling trend are the number of "saves" through administering of Narcan, a drug that counteracts overdoses.

In 2015, Narcan was deployed 47 times. The next year, 62 times. Through Thursday of last week, responders used Narcan in 64 cases, putting the county on pace for 85-90 this year.

In New Jersey, deaths from drug overdoses topped 2,000 last year, more than the number killed by guns, in vehicle crashes and by suicides -- combined.

Many drug users get hooked after taking legally prescribed painkillers such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, which lead to illegal drugs such as heroin or fentanyl.

According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, four out of five new heroin users report using prescription drugs first, and 94 percent of heroin users in treatment said they started using heroin when opioids became too expensive and difficult to obtain.

Doctors were prescribing a 30-day supply of painkillers for five days of pain. The U.S. is the most overprescribed country on the planet by a longshot.

About 80 percent of the global opioid supply and 99 percent of one specific opioid, hydrocodone, are consumed in the United States, according to a recent report. In 2015, about 300 million pain prescriptions were written.

A law limiting the amount of pain-killing drugs that can be prescribed by doctors as recently enacted in New Jersey is a positive step toward reducing the entire country's opioid dependency.

A prescription drug monitoring registry and the state's Overdose Protection Act, which allows persons to report and get help for an overdose without fear of being arrested, are also helping to save lives, as are efforts to increase the length of recovery treatment covered by insurance.

But much, much more needs to be done.

A concerted effort will be necessary to reverse the alarming trend of drug use and overdose deaths.

In Sussex County necessary entities are working together as evidenced by the inclusion of the town hall meeting panel of medical services, law enforcement, government agencies, and prevention and treatment organizations.

Sussex County was the first, and perhaps still the only county in the state to have all its police departments equipped with Narcan.

Additionally six police departments -- Andover, Byram, Franklin, Hardyston, Sparta and Vernon -- have joined Newton in serving as intake points where drug users seeking help can go to be connected to professionals. Recovery coaches from the Sussex County Community Law Enforcement Addiction Recovery (C.L.E.A.R.) program are now allowed to intervene bedside when overdose victims are treated at the hospital.

Law enforcement, which was well represented at Friday's town hall meeting, is very tied in to fighting the opioid epidemic, Koch said, because the vast majority of property crimes are to feed someone's drug addiction. By battling drug addiction, law enforcement is making the community safer.

The dialogue also needs to change. The stigma attached to and condemnation of drug addicts need to advance to a message of understanding, hope and recovery.

An impressive array of sources for help is available for those seeking it.

A statewide source for assistance and referral to treatment is the New Jersey Addiction Services Hotline: 844-276-2777.

The governor's REACHNJ Facing Addiction Task Force resource can be reached at 844-732-2465 or REACHNJ.org.

Locally the C.L.E.A.R. program can be contacted at 844-722-5327 (clearprogram.org) and the Center for Prevention and Counseling at 973-383-4787.

Rachel Wallace, director of clinical services at the Center for Prevention and Counseling and another member of Friday's town hall panel, emphatically told attendees to not let funding be a barrier to getting help. "We will find a way."

As part of its ongoing campaign, the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, has set Oct. 6 as Knock Out Opioid Abuse Day. To volunteer to help spread the word to prescribers and families, go to www.drugfreeNJ.org/KnockOutVolunteers.

It is sobering to hear the statistics on opioid abuse and drug overdoses and at the same time comforting, even inspiring, to hear the collaborative efforts underway to tackle the problem

But make no mistake, the problem is in our backyard and it's a significant one.