Rutgers responds to N.J. heroin problem


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Photo by Graphic by Adam Ismail |

The deaths from heroin use in New Jersey have spiked up from 700 in 2011 to 800 in 2013.


Just months before Connor found himself homeless, he was a student attending Rutgers. His heroin addiction dragged him to the streets. 

Although Connor has recovered, re-enrolled in the University and scored an internship last summer, others are not so lucky. 

New Jersey has a heroin problem, and it is progressively getting worse. In 2011, 700 New Jerseyans died of heroin overdose. In 2012, that number grew to 750 — in 2013, it jumped to 800, said Lisa Laitman, director of Rutgers’ Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program.

“Most of those deaths are young people. ... It’s going to be quite a while before it plateaus. I don’t know if we are in the beginning of it, but I certainly think we’re going to be seeing this for a while,” she said.

Despite the fact that the heroin problem affects a college-aged demographic, Laitman said statistics related to abuse on college campuses is “woefully behind.”

She knows that two Rutgers students have overdosed within the past year.

“We’ve probably had more — we just don’t always know what causes death unless we’ve had the results of an autopsy or a family has told us,” she said.

A new strain of heroin on the East Coast has also affected the spike in mortality, causing more than 80 deaths since its release. 

According to the Associated Press, this mix is spiked with fentanyl, a drug used in hospitals to treat chronic, end-of-life pain. Fentanyl is considered 80 times more powerful than morphine.

Experts agree that the spike in heroin use has largely to do with prescription painkiller abuse, said Felicia McGinty, vice chancellor for Student Affairs.

“Maybe … your parents had a procedure or whatever, and they have some Vicodin left over, or you had your tooth pulled and went to the dentist, and they gave you some Percocet. They start with abusing those prescription drugs,” she said. 

These painkillers have addictive side effects that get users hooked. Over time, a doctor may stop prescribing painkillers or a user can no longer afford to purchase them. As a result, heroin becomes the cheaper, more accessible alternative. 

Statistics from a 2014 report from the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse show the prevalence of this trend.

“In 2012, there were more than 8,300 admissions to state-licensed or certified substance abuse treatment programs due to prescription drug abuse, an increase of 200 percent over the past five years and nearly 700 percent over the past decade,” the report read. 

Like many, Connor’s experience with opiates followed this path. 

“[A heroin high] was pretty much the exact same feeling I was getting from painkillers, but for a much cheaper price. I told myself I wasn’t going to do it very often … but the fact that it was so much cheaper — it wasn’t long before that was all I was doing.” 

Laitman said a person high on heroin typically appears to be “nodding out” and often has trouble keeping their eyes open. Visible clues vary depending on how much heroin a person has taken. 

Yet McGinty said heroin addiction can be difficult to detect.

“Some folks manage to look physically well and do OK academically, but they’re still struggling with that dependency issue and trying to manage it,” she said. 

Track marks from needles are no longer a sure-fire indicator of heroin abuse, McGinty said. The drug is now available in powder form. 

Not only can symptoms be difficult to detect, but addiction can be hard to break. In attempts to quit, opiate users can experience painful withdraw symptoms, such as vomiting and shaking, Laitman said. 

In between periods of using heroin, Connor found himself continuously relapsing. Despite being admitted to treatment centers, he felt as if he completely lost control. He refused to reach out for help until facing “every consequence imaginable.”

McGinty noted the social stigma surrounding heroin addiction often makes matters worse. Other illicit drugs, such as MDMA and marijuana, are contained to social settings, such as parties and concerts. Yet heroin use is often private and isolated. 

Young adults also tend to be more vocal about abusing other drugs, but heroin use is usually a person’s “dirty little secret,” she said.

Despite these hurdles, McGinty said Rutgers officials are trying to get a better sense of the signs of dependency issues and figure out effective methods of outreach. 

“I want to try to create an environment where we don’t perpetuate that stigma and shame,” she said. 

Laitman said Rutgers is renowned for its innovative alcohol and drug counseling programs. Recovering students like Connor have the option to live in the University’s Recovery House, the nation’s first residence hall for students in recovery. Connor said roughly 30 students live in the Recovery House, and about half have struggled with heroin addiction. 

Rutgers Health Services’ Health Outreach, Promotion and Education, or H.O.P.E., is also actively raising awareness for this issue. 

New Jersey officials are also taking action to address this problem. The Governor’s Council report lists a variety of preventative strategies.

Laitman specifically noted the promotion of the New Jersey Prescription Monitoring Program, a component of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs’ efforts to halt the abuse and diversion of prescription drugs. It will make it harder for people to get the pills that start the addiction. 

Counties severely affected by the problem are taking measures to lower death rates. 

In Ocean County and Monmouth County, police have started carrying the opioid antagonist drug Narcan, which reacts against opiates, in their vehicles. Laitman said in in the first few weeks of its implementation, Narcan has saved four lives. 

Yet Laitman believes the state currently does not have enough resources to curb opiate addiction.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all here. Anytime you’re dealing with addiction, you have to have a comprehensive model, which includes education, prevention, enforcement, treatment and recovery support,” she said.


Alexandra R. Meier

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