The word "crisis" tends to be overused, especially in political rhetoric. But Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato correctly called it a crisis after Ocean County endured 53 fatal overdoses through June 3 - mostly due to heroin.
I have dedicated my professional career to keeping young people healthy and drug-free. That pursuit often influences the policies I support as a state legislator, which is why this summer a top priority for me will be trying to free our communities from heroin's deathly grip. We cannot rest until heroin is out of our state and people are free from its grasp.
For those fortunate enough not to know someone affected by heroin, it may be surprising to learn that addiction usually starts in the medicine cabinet. A teenager gets tempted by some Percocet that's been sitting around for several months because a parent didn't know how to safely dispose of unused medication. Once hooked, that teen starts looking for more out on the streets and is faced with a quick test of street economics: pay $50 for a single pill, or buy heroin, which often costs less than a pack of cigarettes for a hit.
Of course, we hope the teen would decline both and seek help, but data and coroners' reports sadly show that teens are more frequently choosing heroin in New Jersey, which has the dubious distinction of having the purest heroin in the United States. That purity makes it more dangerous and has contributed to this crisis.
We lost 368 lives to heroin last year, according to the state's assistant medical examiner, and many media reports note we are experiencing even higher numbers this year.
Heroin accounted for more than one-third of substance-abuse treatments in New Jersey last year. Combining heroin with other opiates accounts for nearly half of all substance-abuse treatments in the state.
We can end this cycle by educating young people and families about the dangers of prescription painkillers, modernizing our laws to keep up with the prevalence of heroin and finding ways to increase access to treatment for those addicted to painkillers or heroin.
I have begun working on legislation that will make people more informed about how to safely dispose of unused prescription medication to keep temptation out of our medicine cabinets. I will soon introduce a reform to the state's prescription monitoring system that will make it more effective in rooting out addicts who con doctors and pharmacists to obtain fraudulent prescriptions.
My Assembly Republican colleagues, Brian Rumpf and DiAnne Gove, of Ocean County, have recently worked with Coronato to introduce legislation that would determine heroin charges by dose, not weight. Under current law it can take hundreds of single-dose bags of heroin to increase the severity of a charge from the third- to second-degree. Their bill, which I support, will be a key to our enforcement response.
I will also examine ways to maximize New Jersey's drug court program, which mandates treatment instead of incarceration for certain nonviolent drug offenders. This revolutionary program is a perfect part of a comprehensive strategy to thwart heroin and prescription painkiller addiction.
I also eagerly await the recommendations from the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse's Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiate Use by New Jersey's Youth and Young Adults. That bipartisan panel, which includes former Gov. James E. McGreevey, will have plenty of thoughtful and impactful suggestions that will help us take back our state from heroin.
When something has grown so large that we read about another fatality nearly every day, we cannot leave any stone unturned.
The heroin crisis has already claimed too many lives. It's time we fight back and stop this terrible trend.
Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini, R-Monmouth, is executive director of Prevention First, a nonprofit agency committed to teaching youths to make healthy, responsible decisions.