Task force releases recommendations to reduce opiate usage
After his friend’s death from an overdose in 2002, Frank Greenagel became dedicated to the fight against drugs.
Today, he serves as both the chairman of the New Jersey Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiates and as a Recovery Counselor at the Rutgers Recovery House.
The New Jersey Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiates was launched in March 2012 in response to a dramatic increase in the number of arrests, treatment admissions and deaths from heroin and prescription pills.
“We’ve gotten immense support from the governor’s office, and it was an easy thing to put together,” Greenagel said. “People flocked to be a part of it.”
Beginning in 2011, deaths in America from opiates and prescription drugs surpassed car crash and gunshot deaths combined, Greenagel said. Over 800 people died from overdoses from heroin and opiates in New Jersey last year. Many were 15 to 25 years old.
Both heroin and opiate painkillers, like oxycodone and Vicodin, come from the opium poppy. They are addictive because their structure resembles endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, Greenagel said.
The task force members include Eric Arauz, a Rutgers alumnus and president and founder of Arauz Inspirational Enterprises, and former N.J. Gov. James McGreevey, a current counselor at the Hudson County Correctional Center, Greenagel said.
The task force spoke yesterday at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick for the 22nd annual summit of the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.
They spoke on a report they plan to release that contains recommendations on how to reduce opiate usage in New Jersey, Greenagel said. Pushback is expected from state agencies, pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies.
“Anytime you propose change to an industry, like pharmaceutical or insurance companies, they’re not going to love [it] because it’s going to take time and it’s usually going to cost them money,” he said.
Greenagel said N.J. youth have access to prescription medications from other people’s medicine cabinets or prescriptions of their own. But after the pills run out and no refills are available, the pills have to be bought illegally, he said. The pills are expensive and many turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative.
The Prescription Monitoring Program is an optional program for doctors and pharmacists to deter them from prescribing pills illegally, he said.
“If you’re someone who is making money giving drugs illegally or without proper prescriptions to people, they’re not going to fill it out. … The strong thing we are discussing is making [the PMP] mandatory,” he said.
Their report would set the precedent for other states to follow, he said. The report will be released in November, a week after Election Day.
Lisa Laitman, director of the Alcohol and Drug Assistance Program, started the Rutgers Recovery House in 1988 as the first recovery house on a college campus. In 1983, she worked with recovery students who found it difficult to live on campus with temptations such as marijuana and alcohol, Greenagel said.
“We are really the national leader and one of the great models there is in the world,” Greenagel said.
The Rutgers Recovery house provides support housing for students recovering from alcohol and drugs, he said. The house’s students have a 95 percent abstinence rate. In the fall of 2012, the average GPA of Recovery House students was 3.34.
The Rutgers Recovery House has been featured on several television channels and has won several awards, he said. It most recently won the 2011 National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors Organization of the Year award.
Rutgers advises many treatment programs and colleges internationally on how to start or improve their own programs, he said.
Greenagel said in his speech that the task force plans to be in Trenton, N.J. in November giving testimony on treatment programs in county jails.
One of the keynote speakers was Benjamin Chin, a School of Arts and Sciences senior who lives in one of the University’s recovery houses.
He found out about the recovery house when he was incarcerated, he said. Greenagel, the primary recovery counselor, came into a presentation in his prison at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility.
“[Greenagel] brought two students in recovery with him, and he spoke a little bit about substance abuse and dependence, he talked a little bit about the recovery house, and he had the two students share,” Chin said.
Six months after his sentence ended, he was accepted to Rutgers through the Mountainview Project, a program started in 2005 by Donald Roden, a professor in the Department of History, Chin said.
The Mountainview Project puts kids from youth correctional facilities on track to earn a bachelors degree at Rutgers, he said, and manages their re-entry into the school.
“When I first entered the house I really felt safe, I felt comfortable,” Chin said. “I felt like I belonged and that I was a part of a community that was going to support me.”
The recovery house is a relaxed living arrangement for Rutgers students who have been sober for a substantial amount of time, he said, rather than a treatment center, which aids those still actively using.
He said while the recovery house is a living arrangement that fosters peer support, it is not where counseling takes place. If a student feels they needed counseling at any point, they would make an appointment at the Counseling, ADAP & Psychiatric Services building.
“CAPS was pretty instrumental in the whole recovery house experience,” Chin said. “You certainly have the house, but then with CAPS they provide individual counseling.”
Aside from individual counseling, he said there is also the early recovery group, which for the first semester eased students into the transition of re-entering school and being in recovery.
“For someone in recovery, a big component is giving back and being of service,” he said. “So basically [it is about] helping other people who are struggling to find their foundation in recovery.”
Chin, who received the Harry S. Truman scholarship in this past year, said he plans to attend law school in 2015.
“I am really passionate about helping to create the policy level for opportunities for funding of recovery communities like we have here at Rutgers, but then also recovery high schools too,” Chin said.
Regina Diamond, a Fordham University graduate student and Rutgers alumna, lived in the recovery house and has been sober for nine years.
She said without mental health services, the Rutgers recovery community and the Mountainview Project, graduating would have been impossible.
“I needed that support, I needed the community, and I needed help,” Diamond said.
When she started showing signs of mental illness and addiction, her family did not know where to go or what to do, she said.
She said there is a misconception that addiction is not a disease.
“If I had diabetes I would go to the doctor and take insulin,” Diamond said. “If I had a heart condition I would see a surgeon. … Why was I ashamed to talk about it, why were there no services available? When my mom started reaching out and looking, why didn’t she know where to go?”
Programs like those started at Rutgers need to expand statewide and nationwide, she said.
“This should be for everyone. These opportunities should not come as a matter of luck or chance,” she said.
Diamond, who worked in state prisons, said going into prisons to help inmates is not easy.
Treatment is significantly cheaper than incarceration. Incarceration in a New Jersey state prison costs about $43,000 per person, she said.
She said young adults are still not being invited to the table, even though their experiences were necessary and their opinion was important to the conversation.
“I find that younger people are more open to talk about these issues because they haven’t been bombarded with this stigma for years of their life saying that it’s not ok to talk about this, there’s something wrong with you if you have these things going on,” she said.
Greenagel said having Diamond and Chin speak was great.
“They are two people who got sober, who were in prison. They got sober, and they came to Rutgers and turned around their lives,” he said.
Eric Arauz, who also spent some time around the recovery house when he was younger, said it saved his life.
He said his efforts around the world were anchored in the courage of the people in the recovery house.
“They’ve put forward … a team that lets young people know that they may have these disorders, but you don’t have to hide them, and you can live with them and succeed with them,” Arauz said. “We may be wounded, but we can still march forward.”