In 2018, Middle Township collected 750 pounds of prescription drugs, and police deployed the overdose-reversal drug Narcan 33 times.
So far this year, township police have used Narcan 21 times, police Chief Christopher Leusner said, adding the rate police are using it seems to be increasing.
Deploying Narcan, as well as prescription drug drop boxes, a mobile unit providing information and resources about drug addiction called Hope One and community programming are all tools law enforcement and health officials in Cape May County are using to combat fatal overdoses, and it’s paying off.
While national statistics show fatal overdoses are in decline, most of South Jersey is going in the opposite direction, except for Cape May County.
A report published this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a 5.1% drop in fatal drug overdoses across the country from 2017 to 2018. If those numbers are confirmed, it would mark the first significant drop in overdose deaths since the 1990s.
However, Cape May was the only South Jersey county to see a decrease in suspected drug-related deaths over that time, state Health Department data show. In 2017, there were 169 drug-related deaths in Atlantic County, 59 in Cape May County and 75 in Cumberland County. Last year, those deaths spiked in Atlantic and Cumberland counties, rising to 190 and 113, respectively. Cape May County dropped to 47.
“We believe there’s a lot of value to having an intervention earlier when someone is suffering from addiction,” Leusner said, adding the township offers Narcan training for its residents and a drug counselor in its municipal court. “When someone comes in with a charge and it appears substance abuse is playing a role, we’re trying to connect that person with treatment right there on the spot.”
In Atlantic and Cumberland counties, where overdoses continue to rise, officials are working to combat drug abuse and connect people with services and treatment.
Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said the county is the “epicenter” of the crisis, calling it an issue both for law enforcement and public health. The county hosts 20 million to 25 million visitors a year, “and drug tourism is a reality,” he said.
Tyner said the Atlantic/Cape May Recovery Court — through which nonviolent offenders struggling with addiction complete intensive drug and alcohol treatment, gain employment, obtain education and pay court fines — along with AC-LEAD, a similar program aimed at early diversion, are working in the county.
And the Prosecutor’s Office partners with the county Sheriff’s Office on Hope One, a van that can connect people to addiction resources and help. So far, the staff has referred more than 200 people to treatment, trained more than 150 people to use Narcan and provided 40 people with photo identification, which is necessary to get into treatment.
“We didn’t get to where we are with the opioid epidemic overnight. It’s going to continue to be a persistent problem,” Tyner said. ”It affects every community within Atlantic County, and we need everyone’s help. We need everyone’s help to fight this problem.”
Melissa Niles, director of Cumberland County’s Human Services Department, said they are partnering with the county Prosecutor’s and Sheriff’s offices on several programs to combat opioid and other drug abuse. In addition to a 24-hour recovery coach hotline, launched in 2017, the county hosts regular Narcan training sessions.
The county also is preparing to launch a mobile unit called Recovery on Wheels, or ROW, that will provide access to treatment, information and referrals to support groups and medication-assisted treatment, needle disposal, health screenings and hepatitis A vaccinations.
In Atlantic and Cape May counties, heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine are the most popular drugs, officials said, but fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is also of concern.
Their concerns are on par with the CDC’s provisional data, which show increases in use of all those drugs except heroin, which has remained relatively stable.
According to a database the Washington Post created from the CDC’s data, the largest decline in drug overdoses from 2017 to 2018 came from painkillers. There were 14,495 fatal overdoses involving prescription painkillers in 2017, compared with 12,757 in 2018.
In 2017, Cape May County saw the most opioid prescriptions dispensed for every resident in the state, at a ratio of one prescription for every resident, according to state attorney general statistics released in September.
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This May, Cape May became the first county in the state to deploy prescription drop boxes in all 12 police stations, including the State Police barracks in Woodbine.
“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” Leusner said. “We need to be focusing as much effort, if not more, on prevention efforts.”