An 'Intervention' in Newark


The Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ) and A&E Television Networks, LLC, hosted a live Town Hall Meeting on prescription drug addiction featuring Interventionist Donna Chavous and local experts, at the Billy Johnson Theatre in the Newark Museum on Tuesday, December 6, 2011. All attendees took part in a screening on the groundbreaking series of A&E’s Emmy Award-Winning Series, Intervention and had the opportunity to ask questions.  New Jersey and national leaders participating in A&E’s Town Hall Meeting were from Left to Right: John L. Hulick, Acting Executive Director, Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse; Angelo M. Valente, Executive Director, PDFNJ; Diane Litterer, Executive Director, New Jersey Prevention Network; Steve Pasierb, President & CEO, The Partnership at; and Honorable Lawrence Cooper, Board of Trustee Member, PDFNJ.  

An 'Intervention' in Newark

A&E Program Holds a Town Hall on Prescription Drug Abuse

One man had his first drink at age 8 and had graduated to heroin before he started high school. Another man, once a successful attorney, popped up to 20 Percocet tablets a day. A 19-year-old from Sussex County went from being a star high school athlete to a convicted felon following his arrest a year ago on drug possession charges. 

They were among the participants last night at a town hall meeting hosted by Intervention, the popular program on the A&E network about addicts and the loved ones urging them to seek help. The Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey co-hosted the event.

The meeting, which was taped for broadcast, was held at the Newark Museum and featured a panel of experts speaking about the latest front in the drug war, the abuse of prescription and other medications -- everything from painkillers to over-the-counter cough syrup.

Newark was chosen for the program’s latest town hall because “we’ve never had a meeting in the [New York] metro area,” said Libby O’Connell, a senior vice-president of A&E Networks. “We wanted to do a show in our own backyard.”

Responding to questions from moderator Deborah Roberts, an ABC News correspondent, panelists said getting hooked is often a sneaky process, especially since the vast majority of addicts first begin experimenting with drugs in their teens, when they’re especially vulnerable. Improper prescription drug use initially can go unnoticed by parents because youths will often team up, each swiping just a small amount and pooling their supplies.

“Addiction is like a dangerous, odorless gas that seeps in under the door,” said Donna Chavous, an interventionist who frequently appears on Intervention segments. “Right or wrong goes right out the window. You’ll find yourself doing things you would swear you would never do, empty your friend’s medicine cabinet, steal from your family.”

The problem is also widespread, afflicting people from every background. Harry Reyes, of the state Department of Human Services, said that in 2010, 3,700 Newark residents were admitted into treatment programs, but other speakers noted addiction is hardly limited to large urban centers.

Prescription-drug overdose has now surpassed traffic accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, said Steve Pasierb, president of The Partnership at Drug There are “dozens and dozens of products” that can be abused, he said, adding that pharmaceutical drugs have now largely replaced alcohol and marijuana as gateways to addiction for young people.

“Twenty-five hundred kids abuse medicine for the first time every day,” Pasierb said.

Another panelist, Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio, said his officers are contending daily with the epidemic in prescription drug crime -- and not just involving users living in the city. More and more, youth from the suburbs are coming into Newark to score, in any way they can. Many commit theft and other property crimes to get money for drugs. Girls from all over Essex County are prostituting themselves.

“Eventually the supply in the medicine cabinet is going to run out, or they won’t be able to get another prescription,” DeMaio said. “That’s when they hit the streets.”

Simply deciding to change one’s life after becoming an addict is a tremendous challenge, as Chavous and other panelists noted. But even after an addict decides to seek help, there are still hurdles to overcome -- namely, a lack of resources.

In New Jersey, demand for places in treatment programs far outstrips supply. David Kerr, founder of Integrity House, a facility based in Newark’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, said he has a waiting list of nearly 200 people.

“We’ve got to treat this like a disease,” said Pasierb. “Someone eats cheeseburgers for 20 years and has a heart attack, they get treatment. It should be the same” for addiction. DeMaio, the police director, said treatment is a vital component in combating drug abuse.

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this,” he said.

Yet even after they’ve gotten help, many of those who have overcome their drug or alcohol habit are still burdened by drug-related arrest records. While the informal stigma surrounding drug abuse has receded significantly in recent years, past crimes can still keep someone struggling to change their lives from getting a job or even acquiring a driver’s license. Several speakers said more should be done to divert non-violent drug abusers away from the criminal justice system and into treatment.

Another panelist, Ariana Rodriguez, a case manager with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence - New Jersey, works for a pilot program that helps some offenders avoid jail. Responding to audience members who said they wanted to see such programs expanded, Rodriguez said “it all comes down to money.”

While last night’s talk did not shy from the considerable challenges involved with preventing and reducing drug and alcohol abuse, audience members also shared inspiring stories of how they went from being “hopeless cases” to clean and sober.

That attorney mentioned at the beginning of this story now works for a South Jersey drug treatment program and is engaged to be married. The teenage felon is in treatment and has applied to college. Henry D. Muhammad, who spent decades as an addict after taking his first drink in grade school, has been sober since 1985, and has since founded his own substance-abuse counseling service.
All of them possess what Integrity House’s Kerr says is a vital quality for anyone trying to conquer an addiction.

“There has to be a sense of hope,” he said.