Legislative panel hears testimony on Bergen County heroin addiction

Rebecca O'Brien The Record 

HACKENSACK - State lawmakers considering a large package of bills targeting heroin and prescription painkiller addiction took their deliberations Tuesday to Bergen County, whose drug-related social services and law enforcement initiatives officials described as a possible model for statewide efforts.

The Assembly Human Services Committee heard three hours of testimony from the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, representatives from county drug education and treatment organizations, and two women who lost children to heroin overdoses. All described a need for more prevention programs, the importance of sustained treatment, and the tremendous personal and logistical barriers facing addicts.

Bergen County has been hit hard by the state's recent wave of opioid addiction: at least 40 people have died from heroin overdoses in 2014 in the county, on track to double last year's death toll, Lt. David Borzotta of the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office said. An estimated 800 people died of heroin or opioid overdoses in New Jersey in 2012.

"We are in a tidal wave," Borzotta said. "If a person was running around Bergen County and killed 40-something people, there would be an enormous police response and outcry."

The prosecutor's office has moved away from "traditional" law enforcement tactics in favor of education and collaboration with health care providers, Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli said. Molinelli also hopes to launch a "quasi-Drug Court" within the county municipal court, which would downgrade drug possession charges and usher hundreds of users through treatment - a possible pilot program for the rest of the state, he said.

"This is a paradigm shift from criminalizing addiction," said Assemblyman Tim Eustace, D-Maywood. Eustace, a chiropractor and a recovering addict, said the shift needed to extend to the medical community.

"Most of our medicine cabinets have a supply of opioids," Eustace said. "That's where the pipeline truly begins. You don't start out a heroin addict. It does start out in the health field."

The committee unanimously voted to release to the Assembly all four bills on the table, including measures to enhance regulatory authority over prison-based mental-health and drug-treatment services and to require state officials to prepare annual performance reports of substance abuse treatment providers.

The 21-bill package, unveiled last month by Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, has moved rapidly through the committee process; Human Services chair Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D- Englewood, said she hoped the Legislature would dedicate a single day to hearing the bills in Trenton before the end of the year.

At the same time, Governor Christie has moved to strengthen his administration's signature addiction treatment measures. A directive issued Tuesday by the state Attorney General to all county and local law enforcement expands training and reporting requirements for those responding to an overdose; encourages criminal investigation of overdose deaths; enhances penalties for certain drug traffickers; and clarifies local prosecutors' responsibility to refer defendants to the state's drug courts, which provide treatment to certain offenders.

Ellen Elias, director of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Resources in Hackensack, praised the county's interrelated health and law enforcement efforts and urged lawmakers Tuesday to consolidate the efforts of the Attorney General and other state task forces focused on addiction.

"There's duplication of services, and I think some of the efforts get diffused," Elias said.

The state's lack of long-term, affordable addiction treatment programs often compounds the troubles families and communities face, officials said; addicts often receive mere weeks of treatment, said Patty Trava, of Franklin Lakes, whose 21-year-old daughter Caitlin Reiter died of a heroin overdose in February.

"There is no blame," Trava told the committee Tuesday, as she described how her daughter shot heroin in her high school bathroom, using needles she concealed in her boots; twice, Reiter went to rehab, only to relapse immediately.

Lawmakers also hailed the efforts of the Bergen County Office of Alcohol and Drug Dependency, particularly Spring House, a long-term women's sober-living facility supported by county and state money. "If I had my perfect world, I would put that continuum of care in place for everybody," said Sue Debiak, who oversees the office.

Bergen County is one of only two counties that provides direct addiction treatment services, Debiak said. Despite county support, she added, the office has lost $185,000 in state support since 1996.

Email: obrien@northjersey.com