HAMMONTON - The rising opioid epidemic in the United States has left no town untouched, including Hammonton, which is exactly why the first-ever Residents Against Illegal Drugs meeting was held last week at the Kathedral Event Center.

“This group has a mission,” said Residents Against Illegal Drugs president Anthony Sbarra Jr. during his opening remarks. “That mission is to make Hammonton a drug-free community through “education, direction and help,” he said.

According to Sbarra, the Sept. 13 meeting was aimed at acquainting the community with the new group by explaining how it came to be and its initiatives to eliminate drugs from the town.

Residents Against Illegal Drugs was founded when the continual news of drug related overdoses, arrests and deaths got to be too much for Sbarra to do nothing. He then joined with like-minded individuals and officially formed the group on June 7.

Sbarra was joined on stage by more than a dozen of his fellow group members. Also on stage were guest speakers Detective Sgt. Edward Slimm and Detective Jared Baglivo of the Hammonton Police Department.

The group has tasked itself with no easy mission as drug related deaths in New Jersey are on the rise. According to the New Jersey Office of the State Medical Examiner there were:

• 1,587 drug related deaths in the state of New Jersey in 2015, the latest year available with official numbers.

• 85 of those deaths occurred in Atlantic County.

• Of those 85 deaths in Atlantic County, 54 were due to heroin.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that was a 16.4 percent rise in drug-related deaths from 2014 in New Jersey. That percentage earned New Jersey, and 18 other states, the heartbreaking distinction of a “statistically significant drug overdose death rate increase.”

It is entirely possible that when official numbers are available for 2016 and 2017, those numbers will have risen even more. In fact, according to Detective Sgt. Slimm there have been five drug overdoses in Hammonton since May.

The reality of drugs is all too real for Detective Baglivo.

“I’m the one who has carried the body out and knocked on your door to tell you what happened,” said Baglivo during an impassioned speech.

One of the biggest messages of the night was that drug addiction can happen to anyone. Sbarra fought back tears as he told a story of a close family friend’s daughter who fell into the nightmare of drug addiction despite being an athlete and from a loving family.

“She made one bad decision,” said Sbarra. That one bad decision then went on to affect everyone around her.

The fact that drug addiction can happen to anyone is exactly why Sbarra believes everyone in town, no matter their race, religion or politics, should be involved in this effort.

“We are trying to unite this community as one,” he said.

For more information on Residents Against Illegal Drugs, please visit their Facebook page under the same name. According to their Facebook page, they will have a table set up on Central Avenue during tomorrow night’s Third Thursday for those interested in learning about the new group.

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