Shirley, 35, of Jersey City was an only child, born into a home with a mother who was “an active addict, a violent alcoholic,” she said in a recent interview. She was molested by an aunt’s friend when she was 8 years old, and dealt with the trauma by herself for years, eventually turning to alcohol at 12 and heroin at 15.
Shirley is one of a growing number of Hudson County residents who’ve become addicted to what was once considered a street drug for junkies who nodded off on the subway.
“I can honestly say I can see why people get hooked. But you never experience that first time again,” Shirley said. “I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t have any regret. I didn’t feel anybody cared. It just alleviated all of the pain.”
Her world was shattered at 18 when she was arrested for heroin distribution, had her 2-year-old son taken away from her, and was sent to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Union Township, Hunterdon County.
“Opiates run between $25 and $50 for one pill on the illicit market, whereas with heroin, one dose is between $3 and $7.” – Angelo Valente
It would take six more months of heroin use, a second arrest, and a remarkable counselor before she could get the monkey off her back.
The scourge of heroin use has reached epidemic proportions and is rearing its ugly head in communities across the country, the state, and here in Hudson County.
Though it’s considered a hard-core drug, it has become much more commonplace among high-school athletes, white-collar professionals, and others.
“According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], heroin use has increased across the U.S., among men and women, most age groups, and all income levels,” said Elaine Pozycki, co-chair of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ), recently.
Medical professionals and social workers say the surge in heroin use has been fueled by people who are already addicted to opiates and other prescription drugs transitioning to something more affordable.
Starts with prescription drugs
Pozycki said the CDC report found that the strongest risk factor for heroin use is prescription opioid abuse, and that the greatest increase in heroin use is among groups with historically lower rates of use, including women, people with private health insurance, and those with higher incomes.
“In New Jersey, the CDC reports that 62 prescriptions for painkillers were written per 100 residents in 2014, which equates to approximately 5.4 million prescriptions,” Pozycki said. These findings underscore the need for patients to be notified by their physician of the potential for dependency on these opioid-base drugs.”
People often transition from opioids to heroin because heroin is cheaper.
“Opiates run between $25 and $50 for one pill on the illicit market,” said Angelo Valente, PDFNJ executive director and a Hoboken resident, “whereas with heroin, one dose is between $3 and $7.”
“A lot of young people get introduced to opioids through sports injuries,” he continued. “They are prescribed them and it’s not realized how addictive these drugs can be.”
The problem arises after the patient’s doctor stops the prescription.
The ramped-up use has led to more overdoses, and deaths from those overdoses.
“Each day in the state, two families are losing a loved one, and that number unfortunately is rising,” Valente said.
According to statistics released earlier this year, heroin-related deaths in Hudson County jumped 161 percent from 2010 to 2014, a little higher than the state average of 155 percent.
The West New York and Union City police departments failed to return phone calls seeking comment. However, the Union City Prevention Coalition will receive $625,000 over the next five years to help prevent substance abuse among youth.
Robert Luckritz is emergency medical services executive director at the Jersey City Medical Center. He and his EMS workers always carry Narcan, which reverses the effects of heroin, morphine, Percocet, and Vicodin, in their vehicles. His paramedics cover Hudson County, east of the Hackensack River.
“Narcan has been available a very long time, traditionally only on paramedic units,” Luckritz said. “Last year we extended the use to first responders, to all basic life support ambulances.”
From January to Nov. 23 this year, his staff administered the drug 250 times.
“If someone is having a narcotic episode, it’s one of the most effective drugs we have,” Luckritz said. “It has near 100-percent effectiveness.”
Since last year, Luckritz and his crew have been working with the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office to train police officers to use Narcan.
Among the Hudson County organizations fighting heroin and opiate addiction is Integrity House at the Hudson County Jail, where former Gov. Jim McGreevey once worked.
“Every one of the women at the Integrity House unit was clinically addicted,” he said. “Heroin was a big problem. Within that population, approximately between a third and two-fifths had some heroin use.”
New users are at risk.
“People using heroin for the first time and having a heroin overdose constitute the number one cause of death for white males in the state over vehicular death,” McGreevey said. “Vicodin and Oxycodone are now increasing the gateway to heroin abuse.”
Help is on the way
Shirley, an Integrity House alum, said, “I can say that a lot of times, from my experience, people use drugs as an escape. If there’s anything going on like trauma or abuse, reach out to somebody instead of taking the easy way out and using drugs.”
Currently, McGreevey works in Jersey City helping people who have been incarcerated for drug possession, its use, and other criminal activity to re-enter society.
The Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey educates the public on the hazards of abusing drugs and promotes legislation that addresses the issue.
The Hudson County Coalition for a Drug-free Community is receiving a federal Drug-Free Communities Support Program grant of $75,000 per year, for up to two years, to mentor drug abusers in Kearny.
Anthony Zanowic, former Bayonne mayoral and New Jersey Assembly candidate, has spoken out about heroin use.
“Drug use is not a victimless crime as some like to say,” Zanowic said. “It brings crime and death to any neighborhood it touches.”
He sees it as one of the main issues of the day, and said more law enforcement and treatment resources should be marshaled to fight it.
On the positive side, more people are entering drug-treatment facilities in the state. And it’s working, as Shirley can attest. With her son, 17, back in her life, a GED, and a good job, things have turned around for her. She encourages others to ask for help when times get rough and not turn to heroin.