The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that the rate of heroin overdose deaths and heroin use has nearly tripled since 2010, with use rapidly increasing across all demographic groups. In the Northeast, especially in the state of New Jersey, death rates from heroin use have quadrupled, with numbers three times the soaring national rate. In my opinion, we can lay blame on many factors – but certainly – it seems politicians in New Jersey have been asleep at the wheel.
Heroin has seen an uptick in popularity recently because it is incredibly cheap, and for many, it is an alternative that can satisfy the craving left behind by more expensive prescription drugs. And it seems that the flow of this inexpensive drug in many of our communities is out of control. Too many of the programs in this country are focused on arresting and releasing, but there’s no concerted effort in treating these people and truly eradicating addiction by getting to the source of the drug. It is no secret that we have an out-of-control epidemic of heroin and drug abuse in this country, but we can begin to tackle it by starting to fight back at the state level.
In 2014, 781 heroin-overdose deaths were recorded in the state of New Jersey alone. While that number may seem shocking, it shouldn’t be to state officials who seemingly, for years, have failed to focus on the problem that has been brewing. While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently promised millions in funding for drug abuse hotlines, prevention programs and struck a deal to make Narcan, an opioid overdose antidote, cheaper for law enforcement – it all may be too little, too late.
The drug continues to pour into our state, with no signs of slowing down.
As a resident of New Jersey and a practicing medical doctor in the state who has seen the level of drug abuse skyrocket firsthand, I am extremely disappointed in the bureaucracy in Trenton. We need our governor to take a more active role in our state’s social issues and he can start by appointing a state drug czar to evaluate our current plans aimed at reducing the influx into our state care, and coming up with more effective ways for us to treat our addicts. In many counties, especially those that border larger cities like New York and Philadelphia, an epidemic of drug abuse has infiltrated suburban communities. While every police officer is aware of this change in demographic, the state government in Trenton has done very little to strategize a plan of rehabilitation to help these addicts re-enter society and return to their communities.
I have seen people that you wouldn’t expect to be abusing drugs struggle to hide their addictions. Mothers, teachers, regular folks that sometimes get caught up in this dangerous habit. They are not only endangering themselves, but also the lives of others around them. And even once identified, trying to get these addicts the proper help through state agencies has been an immense challenge. I also have great difficulty in fighting insurance companies to help pay for their care.
New Jersey should follow the lead of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has helped his state achieve a 10 percent recidivism rate among drug offenders through focusing on rehabilitation treatment rather than incarceration. He achieved this, I might add, while keeping the Medicaid growth rate at less than 4 percent.
There is no easy strategy to win the War on Drugs, but there are certainly areas in which we can start to fight back. One of them, is to acknowledge that we have a major problem in our state. With many rehabilitation centers at full capacity, state officials must look for alternatives – whether ambulatory clinics or outpatient medical facilities – as places that might be equipped to deal with an expansion of mental health care and drug treatment.
New Jersey’s unemployment rate is still high while job growth remains anemic. With all of the human talent we have in New Jersey, the statistics currently do not represent how truly virtuous our state is. Christie might be vocal about drug abuse and potential ways to fix it, but he certainly hasn’t been active enough to help us fight the battle on the ground and in our communities. I’m tired of hearing his campaigning and what he “hopes” to achieve and how he wants to change the conversation about drug addiction. It’ real, it’s here and we’re late to the battle. I hope that this comes sooner rather than later, since we have no time to waste.
Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Click here for more information on Dr. Manny's work with Hackensack University Medical Center. Visit AskDrManny.com for more.