Drug overdose deaths in Ocean County have not slowed since a deadly week in April when nine people died of heroin overdoses in eight days. So far this year, the county has seen 88 fatal overdoses, with 21 percent due to heroin use, authorities said.
Last year, there were 53 drug overdose deaths, and despite efforts to combat what authorities are calling a crisis, Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said the region will likely see more than double last year's number.
The county is averaging 16 to 18 overdose deaths each month. Conservatively, the region could hit 120 to 135 deaths by the end of the year, Coronato said.
"First off, we're just entering the fray and it would be ridiculous to think in the short period of time I've been here that we could turn it all around. The difference between what we're doing now is we're moving in different directions."
Since taking the position as the county prosecutor in March, Coronato has focused on fighting the epidemic through education, modifying the legislation for prosecution, and traditional police work against predatory drug dealers profiting from victims, he said.
All of this will require work and patience, he said.
The push to fight the heroin crisis intensified after 26-year-old commercial fisherman Steven Janson, of Stafford Township, was found dead in his car in Barnegat Township car with baggies used to package heroin with the word BOOM stamped on them. Following the discovery of Janson's body, police said, they learned he and Kenneth Ebinger, 27, of Barnegat, had traveled to Atlantic City just days before and purchased heroin from an unidentified man.
Rasan S. McGee, 22, was later identified as the man who allegedly sold the heroin and was arrested on drug-distribution charges two days after Janson's death.
The heroin coming into Ocean County from Newark, Essex County and Patterson, Passaic County, is 55 percent pure, Coronato said. The heroin coming from the Philadelphia and Camden, Camden County, area is 62 percent pure.
Heroin that is cut with other substances makes for deadly consequences as well, he said. The dealers are not chemists and many times users don't know what they're getting.
"I am warning the public that the combination of the heroin's purity and its cutting and mixing with other substances and the cheap cost is the reason for the number of fatalities," Coronato said.
The most dangerous factor contributing to the number of heroin-related deaths in the county is the amount of pure heroin and the intense demand, Coronato said.
Acting Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain said his office hasn't seen the spike in deaths that Ocean County has, but it is still a concern.
"Each individual one is a tragedy and yes, it is a problem," he said. "But (since 2010) we've had more overdoses from prescription medication than from heroin in Atlantic County."
This year, there have been 12 heroin-related deaths and 15 related to prescription drugs in Atlantic County. Ten others are pending toxicology reports to determine their cause. In the previous two years, prescription drugs have accounted for twice as many deaths in the county as heroin, the numbers show.
McClain said the problems of drugs need to be addressed from all angles, including law enforcement and education.
Detectives are tracking trafficking of all drugs, including heroin, cocaine and prescription medication. And, McClain said, his office participates in ongoing programs, including drop-offs for prescription medications.
"Geographically, we're so close to Ocean County, I'm not sure the cause of that statistical disparity. As time goes on, hopefully, we'll learn what it is and address that problem," he said.
In Cape May County, authorities are dealing with their own heroin crisis, but like Atlantic County it pales in comparison to Ocean.
"I know they're working up there in Ocean County, but I think Joe has a bigger problem up there than I do down here," Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor said.
With a population of 96,304, Cape May County has seen 19 deaths and 85 drug overdoses this year, Taylor said.
Authorities here have been working to respond to each overdose scene and attempt to track down where the drugs came from, and Taylor said the dealers will be prosecuted.
"I'm not going to tell anyone it's a losing battle. The heroin problem is definitely an epidemic, and there is a serious effort statewide to attack this problem," Taylor said.
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