The opioid crisis that is causing approximately 175 deaths each day from drug overdoses is not something that is just happening far away.
Plainsboro Police Lt. Fred Tavener says that the department has seen an increase in the number of opiate-related drug incidents and medical calls and used Narcan, a nasal spray that negates the effects of an opiate overdose, in eight incidents during 2017—an increase over 2016.
“Narcan is an intervention to prevent people from dying of overdoses,” Mayor Peter Cantu says. “When you have eight interventions, you are dealing with a life-threatening situation for eight people.”
Changing these statistics means addressing the problem not only statewide but setting up a program in each locality, Cantu says, and he is joining with the Plainsboro Township Committee and the Plainsboro Police Department to implement the Community Addiction Recovery Effort, or CARE, initiative.
This program will facilitate education and prevention through a network of community stakeholders, and will improve access to treatment and support for recovery for those struggling with drug addiction—without fear of arrest or prosecution for those seeking assistance.
In a majority of cases, opioid addiction starts with prescription medications taken by people with depression or an injury, Tavener says.
Although the drug may have been prescribed for physical pain or mental anguish, often these individuals can become addicted to the opiate drug itself.
Then, once they lose access to prescription medications, he says, often “they will turn to heroin to meet that addiction need.”
This starts a downward spiral, leading to crime. “Heroin, being an illicit drug, is an illegal substance,” Tavener says, meaning that anyone who uses it “has to resort to illegal means” of obtaining it.
So far, police response to the drug problem has been reactive, he says, responding when the hospital or a relative contacts the police, or when a crime is committed and addiction is identified as the culprit.
The crime, Cantu adds, is often driving under the influence, and the drug abuse is discovered at a traffic stop.
The idea behind the CARE initiative is for the police and other community organizations to become proactive instead of reactive.
“The intent is to identify if in fact those who come into contact with police or others would benefit from or are interested in help and to direct them appropriately to organizations that can help them,” Cantu says.
Screening individuals for CARE and matching them with a certified recovery coach at Recovery Advocates of America will become part of the arrest process.
Another focus of CARE, Detective Scott Beatty says, “is prevention through education to provide knowledge and information to our residents so they can make their own safe, responsible decisions and stop addiction before it can even take hold.”
Beatty has been a teacher in the #NotEvenOnce opiate and addiction education program started last fall at High School North.
‘They oftentimes needed to understand that it affects everyone, from all walks of life, and can affect anyone from the community or elsewhere.’
Students responded positively to a post-program survey and the conversational format worked well. “Students felt comfortable sharing stories of experiences of their own and observations of what they had seen,” he says.
This enabled the teachers to respond to misconceptions, for example, stigmatizing people who have become addicts. “They oftentimes needed to understand that it affects everyone, from all walks of life, and can affect anyone from the community or elsewhere,” he says.
The Plainsboro Police themselves have sought out education on opioid abuse. Recovery Advocates of America shared with them signs of drug abuse as well as stories of addiction and recovery.
Police officers are also attending drug-related forums and town meetings in other locales, for example, the RED (Raising and Educating Drug Smart Communities) Forum at Rider University, presented by City of Angels, a New Jersey nonprofit that guides people with addiction to treatment and supports them in their recovery.
Planning for the program has been ongoing for several months. Cantu involved different institutions that might come into contact with people who have addiction problems: local hospitals, judges, public defenders, churches, and school district representatives.
Cantu says that statistics from local hospitals on addiction-related admissions suggest that the addiction problem “is something that is not being overstated but understated.”
“One of the reasons we have reached out broadly,” Cantu says, “is that we want to get the message across to folks that there is help available and they shouldn’t be fearful of seeking help.”
“If you come in contact with the police department, you are under stress; and people may be defensive with regard to the outreach,” Cantu says, emphasizing that the goal of this program is to “direct people to assistance” and any charges are postponed while a person is undergoing treatment.
Cantu also suggests that recovery may have a positive effect in the legal system. “If they go for treatment and it is successful, this is something that can be considered as they go through the system with regard to charges leveled against them and penalties for those charges,” he says.
The idea is that organizations across the community will identify people with addiction problems, and CARE will connect willing individuals to Recovery Advocates of America in Hamilton, a peer-to-peer center that provides education around the disease of addiction and tools to sustain recovery through engagement as well as reduce the stigma of addiction within the community. Its trained counselors assist those suffering from drug or alcohol addiction.
Drug abusers will be able to get help through CARE via links on Plainsboro Township’s homepage, plainsboronj.com and its Facebook page, as well as through the quarterly “Plainsboro Reporter” township newsletter that will mailed to all residents by Feb. 22.
A link will also appear on the home page of the Plainsboro Township Police Department, plainsboropolice.com. If faith-based organizations know someone in their congregation who needs help, they will notify a CARE representative from the police department who will facilitate the connection with Recovery Advocates of America.
Cantu emphasizes, “This is not totally focused on people who come into contact with the police department; this is focused on providing an avenue for people to seek help, whether through the police or a faith-based church.”
In the end, Plainsboro has stepped up to play its role in a crisis of opioid abuse that is affecting people nationally and locally.
Cantu says, “You pick up a newspaper, and if you find that a young person has died, it’s usually related to the use of opioids.”