Due in part to doctors prescribing opioid-based painkillers that proved addictive, the opioid epidemic over the last few years has torn families apart and resulted in the deaths of artists such as Prince and Tom Petty.
“In 2016, we had approximately 2,200 people that died of drug related deaths in the state,” said Juan Colon, of the New Jersey State Police Department, at a substance abuse seminar that took place on Jan. 25 at Union City High School. The seminar was meant to educate area students and residents.
The NJ Reentry Corporation—a non-profit helping former convicts find employment—organized the event. Former NJ Gov. Jim McGreevey, who chairs the group's board, moderated the seminar.
It featured speakers from RWJ Barnabas Health, the West New York Health Department, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, among others.
Colon said that vaping—electronic, tobaccoless smoking—can be a gateway drug for kids.
“Our kids are now using these little pens. It's very hard for parents to identify them because they look like USB chargers,” Colon said. “You can also use marijuana in these devices and go on to other drugs.”
The synthetic opioid fentanyl has been responsible for many of the drug overdoses in the state. It is around 50 times more potent than heroin.
“The moment you take it, it works almost immediately,” said Dr. Amir Friedman, the interim medical director at Alliance Community Health.
He said that fentanyl can be taken in many different ways, including injections, orally, and by inhalation. It can also be mixed and laced with heroin.
“It's 100 times the dose of morphine, and it's acting within six minutes or so,” Friedman said of fentanyl's effects.
Opioids are dangerous because they control the body's reward center, Friedman said. “For example, you have a great, big steak in front of you, and you eat that. It goes to your reward center and you feel good. Now think about taking something like fentanyl” which makes you feel the same way, he said.
Fentanyl can be disguised as heroin, making it all the more dangerous, according to Tanya Pagan, from the Health Resources and Services Administration's Office of Regional Operations.
“When that happens, a person can have an overdose,” Pagan said. “A lot of times, when you try to help the person overcome the overdose with Narcan, which is a medicine used to reverse the overdose, it doesn't work [because it’s more potent than heroin].”
Therefore, Narcan has to be administered multiple times and sometimes “people don't make it.”
Dr. Aakash Shah, a medical director at the NJRC and emergency room doctor, said he has seen many overdose victims.
“We try our best to revive them,” he said. “Oftentimes, we’re able. Oftentimes, we're not. In cases of fentanyl, we are often unable to.”
Shah said signs of addiction can be non-specific. “They might be stepping out frequently to use, they might be repeatedly late. It's very hard to tell.”
Chronic users will often start to nod off as if they're sleepy. “And no matter how much you try, they have trouble opening their eyes, they have trouble responding to you,” Shah said. “You can look at their eyes—you'll see their pupils are like pinpoints-they're very constricted.”
“This drug, this opioid, this fentanyl crisis is a war,” said John Bardis, the assistant secretary for administration at the U.S. Department of Human Services. “It's a war against our children.”
“We've seen in Union City many improvements [in the quality of life],” said Union City Mayor Brian Stack, “but I'll be the first one to tell you, as the mayor, drugs are still rampant in Union City, as they are in cities around us. It's all over, and we can't turn a blind eye to it.”
What you can do
To help prevent opioid overdoses, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following:
1. Track all the medications in your home.
2. Communicate with your loved ones about prescription drugs.
3. Dispose of unneeded medications.
Union City, which participates in the Project Medicine Drop program, has a drop box for unused medications at 3715 Palisades Ave.
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org