“That’s a half an ounce of cocaine,” Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said as he dropped a bag of white powder on his desk. “That’s a second-degree crime.”
Then Coronato dropped three packages of heroin, each the size and shape of a long LEGO block, no bigger than the cocaine.
“Now that’s 150 bags — and that’s only a third-degree crime,” he said.
This dramatic demonstration was part of Coronato’s push to deal with what he says is a growing heroin epidemic that saw nine people die in Ocean County in a recent eight-day span in April, all due to heroin. Forty-two people have died already this year of drug overdoses in Ocean County, compared with 53 all last year and 55 the previous year, said the prosecutor, who took office last month.
A task force has been formed in Ocean County and police and prosecutors are increasing enforcement, but Coronato said legislators from Ocean, Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties need to cross party lines and give law enforcement the tools it needs.
Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, has been in discussion with Coronato and said he agrees that heroin use and sales in Ocean and Atlantic counties have become an epidemic of increasing proportions.
Rumpf said since he has started to work on legislation, he found there was a push to have the statutes changed back in 2000, but without success. It is now important for legislators in the southern part of the state to lead and make it happen this time, he said.
His legislation would increase the severity of heroin-possession charges by changing the focus to single-unit dosage amounts rather than the weight of the drug. Rumpf said many times heroin is possessed by distributors in large dosage quantities. They may not weigh a large amount, but the sheer quantity of them have the potential to do severe damage to the public, Rumpf said.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said he plans to sponsor the legislation being drafted by Rumpf.
Like Rumpf and Coronato, Van Drew called the heroin problem in southern New Jersey “a real plague upon the communities.”
In Cape May County, Lower and Middle townships are fighting a severe heroin problem, he said. High unemployment rates and a lack of activity in the county contribute to the heroin abuse, he said.
“A lot of people believe that at the shore, this doesn't happen here with heroin. They think it only happens in places like Camden and Paterson, but that's just not true.”
The first step, Coronato said, is increasing the penalty for heroin possession and distribution. Currently, the severity of charges is based on weight, which is the same way cocaine charges are determined.
The problem is, the drug is much cheaper to buy, and a half-ounce of heroin can be cut into many more doses than a similar amount of cocaine.
Bags of heroin, as they are described, are actually postage-stamp-size doses of the drug in wax paper and attached to a piece of cardboard and typically stamped with different names.
Coronato pointed to a bust in February 2008 in which a two-month police investigation resulted in the arrests of four people on drug possession and distribution charges after authorities found 500 bags of heroin.
“That would be a third-degree charge. In order to get it to a second-degree charge, it would have to be over 1,000 bags and that’s barely second degree. And if we’re talking a first-degree charge for heroin, well, it would have to be over 10,000 bags,” he said.
“The dealers are the people who are distributing to the public and affecting their lives and they are the ones who need to be held accountable,” he said.
Last fall, the state Department of Health and Human Services released a study that found treatment-program admissions for heroin and other opiate users under age 25 in Cape May County have increased 154 percent since 2006, said Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor, who recently submitted a report about the heroin problem there to the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
In Atlantic, Cumberland and Ocean counties, increased treatment-program admissions for heroin and other opiate users increased by 109 percent, 38 percent and 161 percent, respectively.
As far as Coronato and Rumpf’s plan to change the statutes, Taylor said, he is willing to discuss it.
“We have a legislative committee in the state County Prosecutors Association. I am willing to look at anything that might help the problem. I’m not sure stronger penalties will solve the problem,” Taylor said.
“The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office has a task force that works countywide and has had one for a number of years. We have 11 detectives assigned to the task force and I could always use more detectives, but there is a hiring freeze in effect now by the freeholders,” Taylor said.
Degrees of crime
A first-degree crime carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison, while a second-degree crime carries a five- to 10-year sentence, said Executive Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Michael Paulhus.
With first- and second-degree crimes, there is a mandatory presumption that you will do jail time in state prison, Paulhus said.
Third-degree crimes come with a three- to five-year sentence in state prison, but if an offender does not have a prior criminal record there is a presumption that they will not do any prison time.
“That presumption only applies to state prison. It does not apply to a sentence that imposes county jail time. A judge can also impose a sentence of county jail time as a condition of probation,” Paulhus said.
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