The official speeches are finished, the devastating statistics revealed, the heartbreaking stories of lost loved ones told. Now the participants in International Overdose Awareness Day in Mercer County gather in a circle for a candlelight vigil in memory of the 700,000 Americans who have lost their lives to drug overdose from 1999 to 2017.

Some of their survivors speak in broken voices of teenagers dead from a heroin overdose; parents lost to suicide because they could not overcome addiction to opioids; partners brokenhearted to find their loved ones becoming addicted to prescription pain medication legitimately prescribed to them by doctors, and then moving on to heroin when their drugs were no longer available. Tears fall on flickering candles.

The group finishes this testimonial to a national tragedy by singing “Amazing Grace.”

So ends International Overdose Awareness Day, a global event now in its fourth year in Mercer County. Scheduled on Aug. 27 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Woolsey Park in Hopewell Township, this year’s event will include speakers from the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, the Prevention Coalition of Mercer County and community members who have lost friends and family to opioid addiction.

FROM OUR ARCHIVES: Opioid crisis hits home at Hopewell Valley forum on addiction

International Overdose Awareness Day seeks to educate the community about this ravaging epidemic of drug overdose that took over 70,200 American lives in 2017 alone. A full 47,600 of these overdoses involved opioids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that misuse of, and addiction to, opioids costs the United States $78.5 billion annually. That figure is measured in terms of the cost of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, law enforcement, criminal justice and incarceration. The epidemic even impacts the lifespan of the average American, contributing to suicide, infant mortality and HIV and Hepatitis C transmission through dirty needles.

Life expectancy in the U.S. fell for the second year in a row in 2016, an alarming trend, since life expectancy is considered an indicator of the general well-being of a nation.

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The statistics do not begin to tell the story of the human tragedies of lives cut short, families destroyed, children born addicted to drugs and people turning to lives of crime and subsequently jailed. Consequently, Overdose Awareness Day seeks to heal the wounds of the survivors while addressing the larger community as to the urgency of the opioid crisis.

“This is a time to grieve for those whom we have lost, to acknowledge the pain of those left behind and to raise awareness of the impact this epidemic has on American families,” says Barbara Sprechman, assistant executive director at Prevention Coalition of Mercer County.

Many say that the opioid crisis began with irresponsible pharmaceutical companies flooding the market with opioids, often prescribed by doctors, who were falsely assured they were not addictive. The situation has escalated into a catastrophic health emergency that spans prescription drugs such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and heroin, now cheaper and easier to obtain than some prescription drugs.

Among the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2017, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and other synthetic narcotics causing over 28,400 overdose deaths.

Pharmaceutical fentanyl is an opioid pain reliever, approved for treating severe pain, predominantly in patients suffering from advanced cancer. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Prescribed in the form of transdermal patches or lozenges, it can be diverted for misuse and abuse. Sold through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effect, it is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine.

Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death in the U.S. outpacing car crashes, homicide, suicide and HIV. According to the CDC, New Jersey’s opioid-related death rates are among the fastest growing in the nation, rising 29 percent from 1,376 deaths in 2016 to 1,969 deaths in 2017.

In 2018, the Garden State counted more than 3,000 overdose deaths from its largest cities to suburban communities and rural areas.

“This epidemic reaches every neighborhood, every ethnicity, every economic group,” says Hopewell Township police chief Lance Maloney, whose officers are deeply involved in fighting the opioid epidemic and preparing for International Overdose Awareness Day.

Police and EMTS are the first responders to 911 calls reporting overdoses and they can often avert tragedy by the use of naloxone. Sold under the brand name Narcan, naloxone is a powerful tool against opioid overdose that is carried by police and EMTs and available in hospitals and drug treatment facilities.

Some states now require schools to have the drug on hand. It is most frequently administered as a nasal spray and quickly works to reverse the depressing effects opioids have on the central nervous system. In 2018, New Jersey first responders administered naloxone more than 16,000 times.

While Narcan is technically a prescription medication, most states have loosened restrictions on its sales, making it available over-the-counter. In June of this year, the state sponsored a day of free distribution to the public at select pharmacies throughout the state.

Truly a life-saving “miracle drug,” Narcan was first approved for use in the U.S. in 1971, but the opioid crisis has made its use far more prevalent. A CDC study credits the drug with the reversal of 26,000 opioid overdoses.

The study recommended that more laypersons be trained in the use of Narcan and since 2010, the number of nonmedical professionals trained in administering it, increased 187 percent. Significantly, many of these overdose reversals were administered by friends or families of the victims, usually without the assistance of EMT or police. And while the initial act saves lives, the aftermath creates a new set of problems.

‘’In a sense, Narcan works too well,” says Chief Maloney. “The user is quickly and effectively revived and often claims not to need additional treatment. And, there is the fear that the user and the person who revived him or her will face criminal charges.”

In fact, that is not the case, thanks to New Jersey’s Overdose Protection Act, a Good Samaritan law that provides immunity from prosecution for persons who try to prevent a fatal overdose, even if they are ingesting the drug themselves. However, Chief Mahoney points out, if a person is found to be in possession of drugs under other circumstances, such as a traffic stop or house search, charges will be brought. In these cases, an advocate can be assigned to assist the accused in getting help for addiction and may result in a lighter sentence.

Education on these issues is vital, and police departments in Mercer County now provide informational packets to individuals and family members who may be experiencing addiction issues. The S.T.A.R.T. packet (Steps To Action Recovery Treatment) contains contact information for various organizations regarding drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

The Hopewell Valley Police Department also operates a C.A.R.E. program which allows officers to offer a pathway to recovery by providing resources, access to treatment and guidance from a trained drug counselor.

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Since some addictions in young people can begin with pain relievers due to a sports injury, Mercer County has started an outreach program for athletic directors, coaches and trainers -Tracking Opioids: Prevention for Athletes. It includes an information toolkit and special events with speakers on sports medicine, opioid addiction and law enforcement.

“Time to Remember, Time to Act” is the slogan for International Overdose Awareness Day. In remembering, communities can acknowledge the pain of families and friends of those lost to drug overdose. By acting, using a range of medical, legal and communications strategies, we can raise awareness of overdose, reduce the stigma of a drug-related death and most important, show that the tragedy of drug overdose is preventable.