BUENA VISTA - The Municipal Drug Alliance of Buena Borough, Buena Vista Township and Weymouth Township hosted a substance abuse summit on Aug. 29 at Buena Vista Township Hall.
Join Together Atlantic County organized the summit, which included a panel of 13 speakers who represented various sectors involved in the fight against drugs — legislators, schools, police, faith-based groups, parents, youth and medical professionals.
The summit was held to discuss the growing drug abuse epidemic, particularly prescription pills and heroin. Participants spoke about the need for a communal fight against drug and alcohol addiction, access to resources, support during recovery, overdose, use of Narcan and the new face of drug abuse.
The panel included: Laurie Smith of Join Together Atlantic County, Pastor Tom Douglass of Highland Community Church; the Rev. David Mallory of First Baptist Church of Richland; Tracey Smith, of Speakers for Change and a parent representative on JTAC; Charlie Kerley of the Atlantic County Alliance, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo; Committeeman John Armato; Robert Zlotnick, executive director of Atlantic Prevention Resources; Chief Donna Higbee of the Galloway Township Police Department; Trooper Mark Campagna of the NJ State Police; Bruce DeShields of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office; Sherrie Daisey, director of Medical Services at Seabrook House and Sean Kolins, addition medicine representative at Seabrook House.
“If you are here today, you are part of the solution,” said Smith. She shared her family’s story to help people understand the magnitude of the problem and the need to work toward a solution.
She described a picture-perfect lifestyle. Her family lived in a nice home with a nice yard and she took her two straight-A athletic daughters to church almost every Sunday. Then she found out her 15-year-old daughter was using heroin.
“It’s something right now that thousands of middle-class suburban families are going though. I’m the new face of addiction,” said Smith. “We are in an epidemic. You need to understand that no one is immune. You can have the best family. It is not your fault.”
But there are things you can do as a family, she said. “The first thing and the most important thing is to get support and education. It can be treated like any other disease, but you have to step out and talk about it.”
Her daughter is now studying social work at college and is employed at a sober-living facility.
“What does a drug user look like?” asked Chief Higbee. “It’s not what you think it looks like. It looks just like me and you and your kids and my kids.”
Higbee said it isn’t even something that you can detect anymore. “You’re not looking for things like marijuana that you can smell or things that you’re going to recognize,” she said. “These drugs are colorless and odorless and you wouldn’t know what you are looking for.”
The police department hosts parent symposiums to teach parents how to search their child’s bedrooms and belongings. Officers display confiscated items such as ice tea bottles with a section that screws off for storage to demonstrate what parents should be looking for. “It is an injustice if you are not going through their things and you are not searching their rooms,” said Higbee.
She also encouraged the use of prescription drug collection sites so residents can properly dispose of medications and keep them off the streets.
“This biggest thing is prevention,” said Campagna. “Drugs don’t discriminate.”
He said some people can become addicted after one use. “Everybody has a choice, and sometimes that first bad choice that they make can send them down the wrong road to disruption,” said Campagna.
“Law enforcement is very aware of the drug and alcohol problem that we have,” said Higbee. In the nine months since the department started carrying Narcan, officers have saved 19 lives.
DeShields said people are becoming addicted at a younger age, subjecting them to a lifelong struggle. He also pointed out that many heroin overdoses are caused by what is added to the drug.
“The only way we are going to put a dent in this is to work together ... If we don’t get together and work together as a community, we are going to lose this because you better believe every day we are getting in more and more synthetic heroin,” DeShields said.
The panelists urged that the fight against this epidemic must be a community effort.
“There isn’t one silver bullet legislatively that you can do. I think collectively we are going to have to do certain things to combat this epidemic,” said Mazzeo.
Heroin addiction often occurs after a person becomes addicted to pain medicine and the pills are no longer available or affordable. Zlotnick encouraged residents to take advantage of free medication lock boxes offered by Atlantic Prevention Resources and to use medication drop-off locations to discard expired and unused medications.
People who are affected by drug abuse are often lost in the shadows of the stigma associated with addiction. Panelists spoke about the many faces of drug addiction and encouraged the public to help connect those in trouble to resources.
“I think that the more we help people, we help them to reach their destiny, the reason they were born, why they are here, why God allowed them to walk on this earth,” said Mallory. He said drug abuse has led to an increase in the disintegration of families and help is needed.
“As a church we can introduce people to a personal relationship with God,” said Douglass as he spoke about programs available through churches such as Celebrate Recovery Ministry, Reformers Unanimous, Alcoholics Anonymous and Stepping with Christ. “Without that power living in you, we see so often people go in and out, in and out and in and out of rehab with no power to live a victorious life. That’s what Christ can do.”
Representatives from Seabrook House talked about treatment and recovery and the importance of medical monitoring during detox. They said a comprehensive treatment approach builds a strong foundation for long-term recovery. “We need to get to the root to find out what is going on,” said Daisey. “There is hope. You can overcome this, and you can have a fantastic life, but we gotta get you through treatment. We gotta get you to a place where you like yourself again.”
Kerley spoke about the Alliance’s efforts to save lives in the epidemic. They have helped make Narcan kits available in all Atlantic County buildings and are working to bring them into schools. They also have a Just in Case program that provides free Narcan training and kits.
A few resources
•Free Narcan Training: 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 11 at the Spruce Family Success Center, 3050 Spruce Ave., Egg Harbor Township; Pre-registration is required; email Melissa.Sandfort@fsasj.org or call (609) 569-0376.
•TRY IT (Treating Recovering Youth in Transition): free services for Atlantic County residents ages 13-17, counseling, educational and psychotherapeutic support groups, assistance with 12-step recovery program, family session. Call (609) 645-7700 ext. 4331 or ext. 4334.
•Join Together Atlantic County: 625 N. Shore Rd., Absecon, (609) 272-0100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
•Seabrook House: (609) 501-8996