New Jersey’s Heroin Epidemic

If you have been paying attention, you have become aware of a very serious problem in New Jersey. Heroin… Authorities are calling the problem an epidemic, with record rates of addiction, overdose, and purity of the drug. A report by the Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiate Use by New Jersey Youth and Young Adults has identified heroin and opiate abuse as the number one healthcare crisis in the state. According to the DEA, the purity hovers around 58%, a 12% increase from 2011.  See more DEA analysis, here.  The drug is being trafficked from South America and is arriving in ports in the United States in Newark, Elizabeth, and Philadelphia. In 2012, there were 557 heroin deaths from overdose, which does not even include the untold number of deaths that are always a part of the drug trade. Certain counties seem to be getting hit harder than others; Ocean County and Monmouth County in particular, but with its high purity, easy availability, and cheap price (a bag of quality heroin can be purchased on the street for 5 dollars) it is not hard to see why the drug has made its way across the entire state. As a veteran criminal defense attorney who has represented countless clients charged with indictable drug offenses over the years, it is easy for me see that the number of heroin arrests has trended dramatically upward. It is driving otherwise good people, adults and kids alike, into committing crimes, thefts and burglaries, to support the addiction.

Why is this happening? Simple… Demand. According to the task force report, as well as Acting Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni (Monmouth County), and Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato, the problem starts with prescription painkillers. As an experienced defense attorney, it is an opinion I happen to agree with. There has been a drastic increase in the use of prescription opiate painkillers in New Jersey, and people are underestimating how powerful these drugs are. People don’t think twice about taking them because they may have a legitimate injury they are being treated for, and the pills are prescribed by a doctor. However like any opiate, a physical and psychological dependence can quickly develop. So can withdrawal. When the prescription is cut off, people can be left with a powerful addiction. When they can no longer fill the prescription desperation can set in. They are forced to buy the pills illegally on the street, or from unscrupulous doctors referred to as “pill mills”. Buying pills this way is much more expensive and can sell for as much as thirty dollars per pill on the street, or hundreds of dollars for an illegal prescription. Those who can’t devote significant financial resources to buying expensive prescription pills frequently, very quickly, turn to heroin, which is both more powerful, and much, much cheaper. Others, frequently youth, who tend to experiment with drugs recreationally, end up in the same situation, in the same fashion. I have personally seen a young woman in her early twenties, who was being sentenced for an indictable heroin offense, describe this very scenario to her sentencing judge. She told him her addiction started when she was 14 and was prescribed Percocet after she had her wisdom teeth removed.

Prosecutors are aggressively prosecuting dealers, and to their credit compassionately resolving cases for addicts with probation and treatment. Law enforcement is also aggressively seeking out dealers, and making plenty of arrests. This is pretty much the status quo, which doesn’t seem to be doing much to stem the ever-increasing heroin trade. Some call these anemic results the “failed war on drugs”… But what should be done? To start, we can open more drug rehabilitation facilities which cater to no, or low-income patrons desperate to get sober, and promote them with ad campaigns across the state. Treatment and education is critical. It has been my experience that many clients keep using despite wanting to stop, because they either don’t know how to stop, or cant afford treatment. Also, law enforcement should target doctors who illegally prescribe, or over prescribe, opiate pain medication for profit. Decreasing the availability of pills, which have not been legitimately prescribed, would have a significant impact in decreasing the rates of addiction. Finally, severing the connection between South America and New Jersey’s ports would dramatically decrease the availability of heroin, while simultaneously driving the price higher and weaken the purity, all of which are factors in the increase or decrease of addiction. Until these things happen, and the rate of heroin use drops dramatically, one thing is for certain; at present, New Jersey is on it’s way to becoming the heroin capital of the country, and the magnitude of that tragedy is heartbreaking.


A Heroin Epidemic is Plaguing New Jersey, Vice News, April 2, 2014

New Jersey’s Heroin Crisis: State Report Calls for Major Reform,, March 17, 2014