Speakers working to fight the Ocean County heroin crisis took the stage at the Stafford Township Arts Center as 106 candle luminary bags were lit behind them.
The luminaries represented the 106 people in the county who have died of drug overdoses this year.
The number of deaths in Ocean County has doubled from 53 last year, with two more recent deaths pending toxicology testing.
County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato told the crowd of parents, children, police officers and elected officials Thursday that their presence shows they care.
“My office will be ruthless with drug dealers. Drug dealers need to be in jail for a long period of time. Drug dealers prey on the users — those who are addicted. Some people say this is a war on drugs. I don’t think so. It’s a war for survival,” Coronato told the crowd.
The drug that continues to plague the county is heroin, authorities say, because it’s cheap and accessible. A recent Drug Enforcement Administration report found New Jersey’s heroin purity is now up to 70 percent, and the price for a hit of heroin is down to between $3 and $5, Coronato told the crowd.
“The bottom line is we have the worst-case scenario in New Jersey, where we have the purest heroin and the cheapest heroin,” he said.
About 500 people attended the second drug forum held by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office to address what authorities have dubbed a countywide drug crisis. The first forum was held at the Toms River Pine Belt Arena in October and drew more than 1,900 people.
Thursday's’s event showcased the county’s efforts to raise awareness, educate, mobilize school, health and local law-enforcement partnerships, stop prescription drug abuses and move legislation to stiffen laws against drug dealers.
Keith Elias, former New York Giants running back and Lacey Township native, spoke to the crowd and told children never to give up and parents to support and empower their children.
The forum was a collaboration of the DART Coalition of Ocean County, Barnabas Health Institute for Prevention and the Prosecutor’s Office.
Coronato’s approach to getting heroin off the streets developed after the overdose death of a 26-year-old commercial fisherman from Stafford.
Steven Janson was found April 19 in his car on Starboard Avenue in Barnegat Township, about 10 minutes away from the Stafford Township Arts Center. Inside the car with his body, police found heroin baggies stamped with the word “BOOM.” Janson became one of nine people who died of a heroin overdose in eight days.
Rasan S. McGee, 22, of Atlantic City, was charged in connection with Janson’s death under the strict liability for drug death statute, and an Ocean County grand jury returned an indictment against him for manslaughter and causing the drug-induced death. McGee, who is an alleged Atlantic City gang member, was arrested in Georgia and so far has refused to sign extradition papers.
Coronato’s most recent success in the push to fight the increasing rate of heroin overdoses in the county is equipping police officers in the county’s 33 municipalities with narcan, an antidote that many times can reverse the potentially fatal effects of a heroin overdose.
Doug Collier, drug initiative coordinator and law-enforcement liaison of the state Attorney General’s Office, took the floor Thursday evening as bagpipe music played. Collier mirrored Coronato’s approach as he paced the floor in the theater speaking and interacting with the crowd, reminding them that everyone must do better.
He told the crowd that he had 30 minutes to “make sure I get the message clear and concise” about what the fight is going to require. He yelled to the crowd that they cannot sit back anymore.
“Listen to the numbers. You’re No. 1 in the state. 106 deaths. I will not accept evil and anarchy because of what I do. I have dedicated my life to this. I need you for the fight,” said Collier, who is a retired DEA agent of 27 years.
Collier stressed that prevention and treatment are necessary to win the fight against heroin.
“We don’t want to arrest our way out of this. We need to have treatment facilities, and we need law enforcement. You heard what the prosecutor said, that he is going to prosecute at the highest level,” he said.
The three most dangerous words are “not my kid,” and parents and the public need to make sure children are prepared, Collier yelled as the crowd clapped.
Some in the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats as Collier showed a photo on two screens of a man injecting a needle into his bloody, cut-up arm.
“This is a little graphic. I’m not here to scare you, I’m here to give you the reality of it. Those are track marks,” Collier said.
“I go home. You go home to your wonderful kids, and two warriors here don’t get to. That bothers you, and if it doesn’t bother you, then you don’t need to be here,” he said as he pointed to two mothers in the crowd who lost their children to heroin overdoses.
But it was a third mother, Maureen Morella, who told the crowd how in 2004 her 16-year-old son used heroin for the first time, causing him to aspirate on his own vomit, cutting off air to his lungs and causing severe brain damage. He is now in a wheelchair.
All of his meals and medicine are administered through a feeding tube. He uses a letter board to communicate. More than anything in the world, Jesse wants to eat Taylor ham sandwiches, and on a letter board he spells that wish out for his mother in a video shown Thursday night.
In that same video, called “Jesse’s Story,” Morella lifts her 6-foot-3-inch, 170-pound son out of bed and onto a tilt table.
Morella, of Pompton Plains, Morris County, told the crowd that she knew why they came Thursday evening — because there’s not a single thing more important than saving your children.
“My son went out with a group of friends and decided to use drugs, not because he was an addict, but because he was a teenager and he decided to mess around with drugs and alcohol. What could possibly go wrong?” Morella told the crowd.
Morella said she has done all of the things we are told to do as a parent, and still her son made a decision to use drugs.
“I speak to you today in a loud voice because long after auditoriums go quiet, I want kids to hear my voice. I will not let it happen to your child. Not on my watch,” she said.
Contact Donna Weaver:
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