Eight Ocean County deaths in eight days have Atlantic City authorities warning people about a possibly deadly batch of heroin.
The four brands believed to be linked with the deaths are also sold in Atlantic City, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
That, along with a death in Barnegat Township traced to drugs sold in Atlantic City, caused a warning to be issued by the city’s Task Force, which consists of state, county and local law enforcement.
Toxicology and post-mortem reports are still pending, but the deaths — all between April 12 and 19 — raised concerns that the drugs are either tainted or more potent than usual, said Deputy Attorney General Jim Ruberton, who works with the task force.
The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office is not ready to make that same claim pending the results of tests, but county Prosecutor Joseph Coronato has made fighting the heroin problem in the county a priority and plans to attack it hard, spokesman Al Della Fave said.
And it’s not just Atlantic City that is a problem.
“We have stuff coming in from the north out of Paterson (and) Newark, and we have stuff coming out of Camden and Philadelphia,” Della Fave said. “It’s really coming in from everywhere.”
“Obviously, heroin is always a dangerous drug,” Ruberton said. “But this could be a one-use death with no second chances.”
But the warning could have the opposite effect, said Thomas Brabson, chairman of Emergency Services for AtlantiCare.
“Unfortunately, what I’ve seen happen in the past is people seek it out,” he said. “With heroin addiction, they’re sometimes working for the next high. They always think they can beat the odds.”
Instead, they may use the drug and never wake up.
The first step would be for users to get help for their addictions, but Brabson said those that are going to use need to take precautions.
“These people have a very unfortunate addiction,” he said. “If they’re going to use, they should have some sort of safety net set up for themselves. (They should) have someone else around who can keep an eye out for them.”
Steven Janson apparently didn’t have that.
Janson, 26, of Stafford Township, was found dead in his car Thursday on Starboard Avenue in Barnegat Township. Inside with him were baggies used to package heroin with the word BOOM stamped on them, Della Fave said.
That is one of four stamps — which dealers use to identify their drugs — that have been named as potential problems, Ruberton said. The others are Nyquil, Hard 10 and Ferrari.
During the investigation, police learned that Janson and Kenneth Ebinger, 27, also of Barnegat Township, drove to Atlantic City and bought heroin from a man later identified as Rasan S. McGee, 22.
Just after midnight Saturday, Task Force members — with the assistance of Atlantic City’s Vice Unit — arrested McGee on drug charges.
“The possibility of there being a bad batch of heroin out there is very strong and is very dangerous,” said Ruberton, who stressed that toxicology reports have not yet linked the drugs to the deaths.
The oldest victim was 37, with most in their early to mid-20s, Ruberton said.
He could not say whether the April 7 overdose deaths of a man and woman at the Revel in Atlantic City was connected.
“Unfortunately, they don’t wake up because it’s so strong,” Brabson said of overdose cases.
He said users should try to seek treatment, such as at AtlantiCare’s Access Center or John Brooks Recovery Center in Atlantic City.
In Ocean County, the prosecutor has made curing the growing heroin problem a focus.
“Before Prosecutor Coronato took office, he came down and he met with us and talked to us about the heroin problem and that he was going to work to do something about it,” Barnegat Township Police Lt. Keith Germain said.
Although authorities have traced the heroin found in Janson’s vehicle back to Atlantic City, Germain said Barnegat Township’s heroin supply is coming from all different areas of the state.
“We are in an area that we’re kind of like a nexus, and we have heroin coming from the north, the south and west,” Germain said. “We’re just centrally located.”
AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s City Campus has not seen an increase in heroin cases there, nor have they heard of the four specific stamps, spokeswoman Jennifer Tornetta said.
Gov. Chris Christie’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse began calling the abuse of heroin across the state a public health crisis after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2011 that deaths from prescription painkillers reached epidemic levels in the past decade, said Celina Gray, director of public awareness and community relations for the task force.
One of the issues has been the growing use of prescription pills among teenagers, which are easily accessible and are seen as a “gateway drug” leading to heroin addiction, according to the governor’s task force.
Ocean, Cape May and Monmouth counties are showing the highest increase in treatment admissions since 2006 for heroin and other opiates, Gray said.
In 2011, statewide there were 5,154 who sought treatment just for heroin abuse.
The heroin infiltration into more suburban and rural communities is also bringing in the element of gang activity and the drug trade is big business for gangs, Gray said
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