I come from a place where property taxes are among the highest in the nation; picturesque region of beaches, highlands, inlets, rivers, reservoirs, state parks, and national parks. On the surface, Monmouth and Ocean counties are the embodiment of the American Dream; we have white picket fences, high paying jobs, clean beaches, friendly neighbors, and well-funded schools. The Jersey Shore is not, by a long shot, a lousy place to live, but for my peers, and myself it was and is a dangerous place to grow up. New Jersey, as a state, as a community, has a heroin problem. The countless sad stories, the many miraculous recovery stories, and drug awareness assemblies at schools are not enough to combat the insidious foe beating on New Jersey’s door. A mother grieving the loss of her heroin-addicted son said, “This can happen to anyone. No socioeconomic barriers exist.” The state has failed to heed her warning; people are unwilling or afraid to admit that our suburbs are sick (Lajterman). We must face the evil that is destroying New Jerseyans, young and old, and take insightful drastic action in a way that will effect real change.
This news should not be much of a revelation to anyone who has been to or lived in the Garden State in the last five or so years. Monmouth County has had more opiate related deaths than murders and highway deaths combined (Davis). Heroin and prescription drug abuse seem to be a favorite topic for local, state, and even nationally prominent news outlets. These papers and websites are constantly reporting on the latest tragic death or triumphant drug ring bust, commenting on the “epidemic” and its disastrous proportions. The deaths are indeed tragic and the busts triumphant but the media is getting three important letters wrong. This is not and epidemic, it is a pandemic. According to Webster’s Dictionary, an epidemic is a sudden widespread occurrence of an unwanted phenomenon. New Jersey’s Heroin use, abuse and death rates are of epidemic proportions in the colloquial sense of the word, but the problem is not sudden. This issue is widespread and far-reaching. This problem has been brewing for years and shows no sign of letting up, as a state, a community; we must take radical action immediately.
It is not the intent of this paper to discount or ignore the tremendous work that has already been done by activist groups and legislators in recent years. The State of New Jersey recently passed the “Opioid Antidote and Overdose Protection Act” allowing any person to train for and carry the lifesaving opioid overdose reversal drug Naloxone, as well as equipping local law enforcement agencies and EMS squads with it starting June 5 2014 (Brown). The law also provides broad immunity for both the person administering the drug and the overdose victim (Peskoe). In Monmouth County alone Naloxone has saved 45 people this year as of September 20 (Loder). Community activism groups have also had more than their fair share of success. The change already being effected is by no means insignificant. But more action needs to be taken, legislative action specifically.
The first steps have already been taken. New Jersey and Monmouth County have recognized the problem and taken significant action, but more direct radical action is required. The community must prioritize, and use all the resources that can be mustered to combat this evil. The first concern is, as with most legislative issues, funding. Monmouth has already begun using the County Law Enforcement Trust Account; money seized in law enforcement operations, to fund Naloxone kits for first responders. However, money used to combat the drug problem must be used wisely; therefore, unsuccessful programs must be terminated. The biggest waste of money in the drug prevention effort is the D.A.R.E. program. Numerous studies, from as long ago as 2001, have shown that the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program is a total failure and waste of money, yet the program is still around, and still wasting money (Reaves). Instead of paying for proven failed prevention programs, citizens need to urge lawmakers to disband them.
Nevertheless, the most important effort to be made will not cost us anything, but will prove to be priceless. New Jersey should decriminalize all drug-related offenses excluding major distribution operations. New Jersey must follow Portugal’s lead, where all simple drug possession was decriminalized in 2000 and addiction, HIV, and crime rate fell dramatically (Castel-Branco). Drug addiction is social illness. The battle against heroin is fought in the streets, rehabs, courtrooms, and offices of legislators, but it can only be won in the hearts of the people. The population needs to see and understand that drug addiction is a disease and a social problem, not a criminal one.
New Jersey is a great place; we have beautiful beaches and forests, great cities, and some of the greatest people in this country. Our community spirit has overcome great obstacles. The state’s latest villain is much more dangerous than any hurricane or fire, and it is in our homes. We have a hard road to ride and a long one, but it is not too much for us. New Jersey will overcome the heroin pandemic by supporting our neighbors, pushing our lawmakers towards progress, and maximizing the effectiveness of our efforts.
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