Cape May County, known for its vast beaches and variety of attractions, is also earning an unwanted distinction — it has a seemingly endless supply of especially pure heroin.
“We’ve had drug overdoses in many towns. Avalon, Dennis (Township). It’s hitting the entire county,” Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor said.
The growing problem has led to an increased effort by the county and its municipal police departments to combat heroin use and the problems that come with it.
Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 23, for instance, the county has seen 97 overdoses; 24 have been fatalities, a record year, Taylor said.
“I’m in my 10th year now (as prosecutor) and this is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” he said.
The problem is widespread, but locally the communities that are seeing the largest number of heroin-related crimes include Wildwood, which Taylor said tops the list, followed by Middle and Lower townships and Ocean City.
“Wildwood is one of the top, if not the top, area in the county,” Taylor said, noting that the month of August saw 98 drug-related arrests in Wildwood alone. “We’ve seized thousands of bags of heroin.”
Wildwood officials and business owners have been in contact about combating the problem, particularly in the downtown.
“The business owners have asked for more aggressive policing in the downtown,” said Patrick Rosenello, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District.
The district, which encompasses all of Pacific, Atlantic and Ocean avenues from one end of town to the other, is home to more than 300 commercial properties.
That aggressive enforcement by police, the county Prosecutor’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department, involves combating both the larger drug problem as well as the smaller crimes, the disorderly persons offenses, that can affect life in the city’s business community.
The result, Rosenello said, has been a positive one as the area becomes safer.
Wildwood Police Capt. Robert Regalbuto, a 24-year veteran of the department, said he recalled a similar period years ago when crack cocaine was the drug of choice.
“You combat it as diligently as you can,” he said.
The result of the current effort, he said, is a safer community.
“We’re still taking an agressive stance. If you’ve got them on the run, you don’t back down,” Regalbuto said.
In addition, the business owners have supported the effort by supplying $20,000 each summer to the city to pay for the hiring of Class II police officers.
“The police have become more visible and aggressive and that has had an impact on the downtown,” Rosenello said.
Commissioner Anthony Leonetti, who oversees public safety for Wildwood, said the number of arrests are up.
“The town just needs to be cleaned up,” Leonetti said. “It’s a resort town and we have to treat it as such.”
The city’s 30-member Police Department is increasing patrols and drug investigations, though Leonetti said the staff needs to be increased. By city ordinance, the department can have as many as 47 officers.
“We’re trying to find money to hire more police,” he said.
In the meantime, his department, along with the county’s Narcotics Task Force, are engaged in numerous investigations conducting almost daily drug raids.
Today, the city is seeing a mixture of drug possession and distribution cases, but the quantities, Regalbuto said, are greater than in past years.
“Before it would be one or two bags and now it’s one or two bundles. It’s so cheap and readily available,” Regalbuto said.
Taylor said his office now has two teams operating in the county to combat the growing problem.
“We’re targeting the mid-level and high-level drug dealers. We’re not targeting addicts or users,” Taylor said.
The task also involves focusing on the accompanying property crimes as drug users commit thefts and break-ins to feed their habits.
“The whole county has been taken over by heroin. It’s a problem we need to attack. It’s in every town,” Leonetti said.
Heroin’s prevalence here is the result of several factors, Taylor said.
The potent drug is inexpensive compared to its prescription counterparts such as Percoset and Oxycontin. One pill of those prescription medications sells for $1 per milligram, so a 60-milligram dose, for instance, is $60.
A small baggie containing heroin sells for just $20 in Cape May County.
“It’s cheaper than prescription pills. That’s what’s getting a lot of young people to try heroin,” Taylor said.
The other draw is the drug’s purity. Taylor said heroin here is 63 percent pure.
According to the Department of Justice, heroin purity levels in the Northeast, particularly in Boston, New York City, Newark and Philadelphia are the highest in the nation.
“The drug dealers in Camden, Philadelphia, wherever, are telling their people to get down to Cape May County,” Taylor said, noting that the same bag of heroin sells for $4 on the streets of Camden. “The number of visitors and tourists make it a potential market.”
Now, with the increase in task force activity, the county and the affected municipalities are hoping to change that.
“We certainly are seeing improvement in the number of drug dealers that are arrested and charged,” he said.
Leonetti said the city is in communication with business owners to find ways to improve and the city is currently adding to its inspection department to tackle abandoned and dilapidated properties that contribute to neighborhood declines.
Taylor, who sits on the state Attorney General’s Heroin and Opiate Task Force, also urges parents to get involved and to remove unused prescription pills from their medicine cabinets and keep them out of reach of children.
The Prosecutor’s Office is conducting community outreach, visiting schools to raise awareness about the dangers of heroin.
“The parents should start talking to their children and be aware of what their children are doing,” Taylor said.
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