There’s no shortage of cheap, high-purity heroin in Cape May County. And there’s no shortage of people looking to keep the drug out of kids’ hands.
More than 70 educators, law enforcement personnel and social service workers attended a conference Thursday on the link between prescription medication and heroin abuse among the county’s youth.
Nancy Hudanich, superintendent of the Cape May County Technical School District, said the conference was not only a good source of information but an opportunity to network with other professionals looking to keep youth off drugs.
“The data absolutely validates the need for an ongoing conversation,” she said. “It also has exposed the fact we need to work together.”
The conference was organized by the Cape May County Pride Committee, a coalition of community and school leaders formed last year by the Sea Isle City Board of Education to address the growing problem of heroin and opiate use in the county by targeting its kids. The conference included guest speaker Doug Collier of the state Attorney General’s Office, a panel of local experts and several presentations by addiction services organization Cape Assist, which organized the conference.
Before taking his position with the Attorney General’s Office, Collier spent more than a decade as a special agent with the DEA. In his hour-and-a-half presentation, Collier detailed the manufacture and trade of heroin and the link between heroin addiction and prescription medications. Relatively few users start with heroin, he told the group, instead they are introduced to the high through synthetic opiates such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (Oxycontin) pulled from medicine cabinets.
Once addicted, users sometimes graduate to heroin, which offers a similar high at a fraction of the price. He said a recent DEA drug study found New Jersey has some of the purest heroin in the country, which makes it especially dangerous. Cape May County saw a record 105 overdoses last year, 28 of them fatal.
Following Collier’s presentation, Cape Assist Director of Community Initiatives Kim Mounce explained the results of a drug survey given out to 1,100 students in seventh-, ninth- and 11th-grade in Cape May County schools. While only a fraction of those polled at all three levels indicated they’d misused prescription drugs within the last month, many of the older students said these drugs were readily available. About a quarter of the 11th-graders surveyed said they could easily obtain prescription drugs that were not prescribed to them. About half said alcohol, tobacco and marijuana were readily available.
Avalon Elementary School fifth- through eighth-grade counselor Alanna Smallwood said she didn’t believe any of her students used drugs, but was aware it was an issue among some of the older students. She helps organize drug-awareness programs at the school, saying one of the keys to fighting the problem is eliminating naivete.
“(Parents) say, ‘Oh no not my child,’” she said. “Nobody’s immune to it no matter how much money or how little money you have.”
Panelist Pat Horvath, student assistance counselor with the Ocean City School District, echoed Smallwood’s sentiment. She said the key to addressing the problem is frank discussion.
“We need to start talking openly — conversation all the way down, from parents and families, police, kids (and) schools — and for people not to attack each other, to really just ask for help,” Horvath said.
Cape Regional Medical Center Emergency Department Medical Director Domenic Coletta was a last-minute addition to the panel. He read about the conference in the newspaper and offered his expertise, which Cape Assist Director Lynne Krukosky accepted.
Coletta said overdose is all too common in the emergency department. Often, he and his doctors treat the same faces just a few short months apart. But regardless of the number of overdoses he sees, it’s tragic.
“If there’s just one overdose who shows up to the ER in months, to me, that’s one more than it should be,” Coletta said.
The conference was sponsored by the Sea Isle City Board of Education.
Contact Braden Campbell: