Two young Cape May County men, ages 29 and 30, died over the weekend.

The cause of death was determined to be the adverse effects of drugs, specifically heroin, officials said.

“You don’t know what you’re putting in your arm,” said Middle Township police Chief Chris Leusner. “You’re taking a risk every time.”

That risk led to 23 deaths in Cape May County last year, and three deaths so far this year.

Heroin use has been described nationally as an epidemic, and efforts to combat it involve all manner of programs, from diversion efforts directed at teenagers to talks by county law-enforcement officials to senior citizens stressing the need to get rid of prescription drugs that can be easily found by their grandchildren.

Education is key, Leusner said.

“Prevention is always better than reacting once it develops into a problem,” he said.

To that end, he hopes to start a diversion program aimed at talking to those younger than 13 about the damage drugs can inflict both physically and mentally.

“When you look at the heroin problem, it’s more complex than saying ‘don’t do heroin,’” said Lynne Krukosky, executive director of the Wildwood-based nonprofit Cape Assist.

Krukosky has spent 25 years working as a prevention educator.

“This feels very different from what we’ve seen before,” she said of the prevalence of heroin today. “There’s always been a flavor of the month, but this seems more available.”

So her organization focuses on the young, with programs designed to change behaviors and stop the transition from alcohol use to marijuana to prescription drugs and eventually heroin.

“Alcohol really is the No. 1 drug we have to be heading off,” she said.

Cape Assist sees about 200 clients at the moment, 80 percent of whom are dealing with addiction.

“The majority would be heroin,” Krukosky said.

Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor said education, law-enforcement investigations and better treatment facilities are components in the effort to reduce or eliminate heroin addiction.

The county offers a seminar, “Pills to Heroin,” to make middle and high school students aware of the inherent dangers of the drug.

Two teams of detectives also work for the county pursuing what Taylor called “mid-level to high-level” drug dealers. And talks are underway to try to find a treatment facility that can handle the county’s growing problem.

Like many law-enforcement officials across the country, Taylor supports making naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, available to police officers.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the antidote is “an opioid-receptor antagonist medication that can eliminate all signs of opioid intoxication to reverse an opioid overdose. It works by rapidly binding to opioid receptors, preventing heroin from activating them.”

However, police having naloxone would not have made a difference in the two recent deaths because both men had been dead for some time, Taylor said.

The Middle Township Police Department responded to the Del Haven section of the township Friday for a report of a death. A hypodermic needle and an empty glassine bag, “consistent with the packaging of heroin,” were located near the 29-year-old man’s body along with numerous other small plastic bags that contained suspected heroin.

On Monday, the Lower Township Police Department responded to the North Cape May section of the township for a report of a death. Near the 30-year-old man’s body were a hypodermic needle and one empty glassine bag. Twenty more bags of suspected heroin were found nearby.

“I believe it’s a tragedy when you lose a young person, any person, dying because they overdosed on heroin,” Taylor said. “It could be anybody’s son or daughter.”

Leusner said the community is seeing an increase in petty crimes such as shoplifting as addicts seek to feed their habits. For instance, the Walmart in Rio Grande was the subject of six shoplifting incidents in 2013; forty already have been reported this year, he said.

“And there’s a number of them that had evidence of heroin on them,” Leusner said of the accused shoplifters.

Locally, a small bag of heroin can be purchased for $20 to $30. But the drug is cheaper in larger cities. Leusner said this has led to “daytrippers,” or people who purchase quantities of the drug cheaply in places such as Camden and bring it back to Cape May County.

And the addictive nature of heroin ensures those entrepreneurs never want for customers.

“Once somebody becomes addicted, it’s no longer a situation where they can choose,” Taylor said. “The need is so strong. The craving is so strong. Once they start, they can’t stop.”

Contact Trudi Gilfillian: