Opioid crisis

Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner announced a new task force on Tuesday that will help combat drug trafficking and the opioid crisis in the county.

Atlantic County is getting a new task force that will crack down on drug trafficking in one of the highest-ranked areas in the state for narcotics activity, county Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said Tuesday.

The task force, with a $175,000 budget, is part of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program created by Congress under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1988. Joining the program means Atlantic County is a “critical drug-trafficking region” and will share equipment, intelligence and funding with the Drug Enforcement Administration and local police departments.

“We are seeking to aggressively address the opioid addiction that plagues our community,” Tyner said.

Atlantic County is ranked third in New Jersey’s Drug Harm Index, said Nicholas Kolen, assistant special agent in the DEA’s New Jersey Division. The index is a State Police analysis of the number of drug arrests, Narcan uses, overdoses and other drug activities in each county.

In recent years, he said, pills laced with fentanyl have hit Atlantic County. There were 168 overdose deaths in Atlantic County in 2017, state data show.

“There’s no silver bullet to combating the spread of drugs,” Kolen said. “But this (task force) is having a budget for it.”

Atlantic City already has its own narcotics task force funded through the state that focuses on street-level crime, Kolen said, but the new unit will go a step further.

Housed in the DEA’s Northfield office, Kolen said it will crack down on the bigger cartels bringing drugs into the county mainly from Mexico and China.

“We know where it’s coming from. We just need the resources to attack it,” Kolen said. “We’re very confident we are going to make a big dent in the overdose deaths in Atlantic County.”

Atlantic County applied to be a part of the federal program in 2010 but was denied due to lack of funding, said Daren Dooley, chief of county detectives. A more recent application was approved.

Atlantic County is joining 28 other counties in more than a dozen states that are already a part of the HIDTA program.

Eighteen percent of all U.S. counties and 66 percent of the population are in the program. To qualify, an area must be a “significant center of illegal drug production, manufacturing, importation or distribution,” according to the program’s website.

“Everybody is competing for limited resources,” Dooley said. “The federal government has really stepped up with more resources. ... The minute we found out about that, we threw our hat back in the ring.”

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