How do you control illegal drug and alcohol use in your town? Experts debate this constantly, especially as the number of heroin deaths continue to climb every year. A local medical office started giving an award to towns who are doing everything right in combating the problems.
The Institute for Prevention at Robert Wood Johnson Barnabas Health awarded Lacey Township as a Town of Excellence for the community-wide efforts to combat illegal drug and alcohol use.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child and there are more people in the prevention field than ever before doing the heavy lifting, trying to fight underage drinking and the heroin epidemic,” said Mayor Peter Curatolo, who also works as the director of the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center for the Ocean County Health Department.
How Big is the Problem?
The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office compiles the numbers of deaths, as well as the numbers of saves with Narcan, the naloxone spray that first responders use to save the lives of people who are at risk of overdosing.
Al Della Fave, press officer for the prosecutor’s office, shared the following statistics on overdoses for the past few years. Keep in mind that an overdose, by definition, means that someone died from using drugs. Additionally, these figures represent all kinds of overdoses, but he said the majority were from opiates such as heroin and fentanyl.
2012: 53 overdoses.
2013: 112 overdoses.
2014: 101 overdoses. The county began using Narcan in April, and had 129 reversals.
2015: 118 overdoses. 272 Narcan reversals.
2016: 197 overdoses. 502 Narcan reversals. Della Fave noted that the number of overdoses will likely increase to more than 200 as toxicology reports come in.
2017: 6 overdoses. 18 Narcan reversals.
These figures were accurate as of the morning of January 18. According to these figures, this was an average of one death every three days, and one Narcan save a day.
Change Attitudes to Change Behavior
The first thing to do is understand the problem, officials said.
One of the most important goals is to alter people’s perceptions about drugs and alcohol, said Michael Capko, DART Prevention Coalition Manager for Robert Wood Johnson. The name DART used to stand for their organization, he said. The name has since changed, but the acronym has been kept since the goal of the organization is “taking aim at substance abuse.”
“Attitudes and opinions are where you start to see change,” he said. This forms the groundwork for everything else in the community.
Some residents needed convincing to show them that there really was a problem, said Heather Scanlon, municipal alliance coordinator for Lacey.
“A lot of people had their heads buried in the sand,” she said. “There was an understanding that this was a big problem and we needed to address it as a unified front.”
Lacey Lt. Paul Sullivan said that stopping underage drinking sometimes starts with teaching the adults about the problems.
If people start drinking prior to the age of 15, they are five times more likely to have a drinking problem, he said.
“Alcohol is the true gateway to everything else,” he said.
Therefore, it is important to address it at very young ages, he said. Also, it is important to teach parents. They become part of the problem when they host parties with kids drinking, thinking it is no big deal.
“You can’t have the attitude that ‘It’s just alcohol’ or ‘It’s just kids being kids’ because it will continue to be a real problem that can lead to the demise of your kid or another kid” if your child gets behind the wheel of a car, he said.
What It Takes to be a Town of Excellence
Robert Wood Johnson evaluates municipalities based on a checklist of criteria, Capko said. This is the first year for the award, he said. He noted that Brick, Toms River, Little Egg Harbor, and Plumsted also worked hard for this award.
“Lacey has really met and exceeded the criteria on all fronts,” he said. These are the priorities that they look at:
“Parents who host lose the most” campaign to curb parents from allowing alcohol at their children’s parties.
Sticker Shock, where stickers are posted on alcohol bottles at liquor stores that tell consumers that it is illegal to sell or provide alcohol to minors.
TIPS (Training on Intervention Procedures) policy change on the municipal or organizational level
Private property ordinance, allowing police to make arrests for underage drinking on private property.
NJ Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control training’s for alcohol outlet owners and store managers.
Illegal Marijuana Use: Disseminate information on the dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana.
Prescription Drug Misuse:
Permanent prescription drug drop box and mobile collection box to get unused medication out of homes.
“What’s in your Medicine Cabinet?” presentation.
Narcan training for community members.
Tobacco merchant education.
Smoke free parks/outdoor recreation by municipal ordinance.
Smoke free signage in municipal parks and outdoor spaces.
DART Youth Prevention Coalition:
Presence of the DART coalition in the high school and middle school.
Advisor participation on the DART Youth Prevention Coalition Advisor Committee.
“What the designation means is that it really validates the effort made in our township to improve the quality of life for all of our residents and from a prestigious institution like RWJ Barnabas Health to recognize our township for these achievements means a lot,” Mayor Curatolo said. “But for the efforts of our Municipal Alliance, our police department, our recreation department, our schools and all our volunteers working in concert with each other, awards like this simply don’t happen so I am very proud of everyone that had a hand in this.”
But by no means does this award mean that the problem is solved. For all of the town’s efforts, the town has not yet seen a reduction in drug use, the chief warned.
“Heroin is at an all-time high. The problem is going to increase before it’s going to decrease,” DiBella said.
Programs and Activities
A number of programs and activities led to residents fighting drugs and alcohol use in Lacey, and officials there used these programs as examples on how to successfully fight these issues:
RED Night Out, a recurring event where families come out for speakers and activities, Scanlon said. It was promoted with local businesses, and it stands for Reaching and Educating a Drug-free community.
Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs event.
Parent awareness program in 2014 that drew 800 parents and students.
Prescription drop-off at the police department. “Without a doubt, that medicine drop-off has continued to be a success,” Lacey Police Chief Michael DiBella said.
Prevention Vs. Punishment
Manchester and Brick townships have begun pilot program called HARP: Heroin Addiction Response Program. People who are suffering from any kind of addiction can approach the Manchester police department (1 S. Colonial Dr.) on Wednesdays or the Brick police department (401 Chambersbridge Rd.) on Thursday without fear of arrest.
They will be screened for entry into the program, and will be transported to addiction services in either Preferred Behavioral Health in Lakewood or Integrity House in Toms River.
Curatolo said that the township is watching the effects of the pilot program to see if it would be something to bring to Lacey.