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Education: New Jersey’s strength against opioids and heroin

The heroin and opioid epidemic continues to grow not only in New Jersey, but across the nation. A team of panelists held a training session in Toms River this week to discuss how to curb the epidemic and instill more healthy alternatives.

On Monday at Ocean County College, Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey presented ‘Chasing the Dragon’, a prescription drug abuse and heroin prevention training session. Their goal was to inform law enforcement and government officials, educators and parents of the dangers that unaware teens and young adults face in narcotic abuse.

In a video by the FBI and DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), you can see below, former drug addicts, admit smoking marijuana, one as young as 11 years of age, or becoming hooked on heroin or opioid pain medications after a significant injury.

Emotions among viewers in the auditorium ranged from anger to sadness for the dire consequences of those who struggle with addiction.

“About 586,000 people aged 12 or older in 2014 had a heroin use disorder, which represents 0.2¬†percent of the people aged 12 or older,” according to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Officials seem to agree on the need for education and community outreach, and for changes in certain laws to better protect individuals from becoming addicted.

New Jersey DEA Special Agent Carl Kotowski said that addiction doesn’t discriminate, “It could be your next door neighbor, a college student or the high school coach.”

Education is the best way to clean the drug off the streets, he added, but notes a significant reason why the heroin problem escalated.

” ‘The bad guys’, the ones we go out and arrest every day, realize, ‘Hey, there’s a real market here in the United States for heroin, because now law enforcement and the medical community has made it more difficult to buy that Oxycodone pill, or that Percocet, or Vicadin,” said Kotowski.

He adds that they’ve made strides toward a solution, but it’s a long journey.

“We can….make baby steps for gains in this whole problem,” said Kotowski.

“From 2000 to 2014 nearly half a million people died from drug overdoses. 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose,” according to the CDC.

Whether it’s a family member or a friend, the struggles of addiction often have dire consequences.

Angela Cicchino, a recovered drug addict who now serves as a recovery specialist for St. Barnabas Health in West Orange, offered that understanding the harsh realities of the justice system can be a powerful means of curbing the epidemic.

“That’s what got me clean,” she said, “and I believe that helps a lot of people stay on the right track.”

She adds she was one of those people who never thought anything bad would ever happen to them, and it’s something she uses when speaking with someone in active addiction because, “I can relate, and have passion and empathy.”

One way she feels the schools can step in and help is by having peer to peer communication.

“Bringing in positive peers and role models,and letting them know,” said Cicchino, who explains that when young adults watch TV,”they’re¬†seeing that it’s cool to use drugs today. I think that making it not cool to use drugs is even better.”

While there is no easy fix to the heroin and opioid problem in New Jersey, Dr. Vikram Varma from Community Medical Center says one solution is properly monitoring which drugs your taking.

“Ask that question, do you really need an opioid or a narcotic pain medication?,” said Varma. “Obviously if it’s a fracture or something like that, then they need it but maybe for just a few days, as opposed to seven, ten or fourteen days.”

He adds things such as toothaches or other minor injuries would be okay just by taking Tylenol.

A vital part of combating the epidemic in Ocean County, and across the state, is education explains Executive Director Angelo Valente of the Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey.

“We really have to educate the medical community about their over-prescribing,” said Valente. “We have to educate parents to make sure when their children are in a situation where they’re going to be prescribed the medication, that is opiate based, they understand the consequences and look for alternatives.”

He adds it’s also critically important to educate young adults on the dangers of drugs as well because narcotics change the way your mind functions.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance abuse addiction, the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office has a list of help lines located here.

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