TOMS RIVER – Any police officer will tell you that they would rather arrest someone for dealing drugs than using drugs. There is an ongoing mission to go up the supply chain to plug the source of illegal narcotics.
Toms River officials believe they have taken another step toward fighting the opioid epidemic by joining a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies. The situation is that many people get addicted to prescription painkillers and then transition to heroin because it is cheaper. Prescriptions are being called the gateway drug to illegal drug use.
The pharmaceutical companies have not yet been named publicly. The suit is being waged by Motley Rice LLC, and D’Arcy Johnson Day.
According to their website, Motley Rice has also successfully litigated against tobacco companies on behalf of states, to recoup public health costs related to smoking. Due to this lawsuit, the method that companies can market cigarettes changed.
That’s what Toms River officials want to happen to pharmaceutical companies.
“From day one, these manufacturers have known it was addictive and concealed it,” Mayor Thomas Kelaher said. Marketers touted all the benefits of the drugs to doctors and patients, but downplayed the negative aspects.
The drug companies expand the usefulness of the drug, so that it gets prescribed for a wider and wider range of conditions. Therefore, people with sports injuries, or chronic ailments like arthritis, get prescriptions for painkillers, he said. Then, once their prescription ends, they turn to heroin because it is cheaper.
The announcement came at a press conference. That morning, Police Chief Mitchell Little received word that a 27-year-old woman had overdosed. The town has had around 20 so far this year.
Toms River had 46 overdoses in 2016, he said.
That’s almost one quarter of the total 209 overdoses in the county.
In 2016, there were 221 deployments of Narcan, the chemical spray that reverses overdoses. However, Little warned that this figure is just from the police department alone. This does not include paramedics.
Some doctors are prescribing pharmaceuticals too much, he said. Some people doctor shop, trying to find one that will prescribe what they want.
Then, there is another problem of people keeping medications in their home and it getting stolen, he said. This is why the town has a mailbox-like place for people to drop off unused prescriptions. The department also goes around to events with mobile drop-off. They collected 2,000 pounds of prescriptions last year.
“Growing up in Toms River…overdoses were rare and was on the other side of the tracks, so to speak,” Council President Alfonso Manforti said. “Now, everybody knows a family who is affected.”
He related that his 27-year-old daughter sees three or four deaths of people she knows a year.
“Can you hold doctors responsible? I don’t think so. They’re going by what the drug companies tell them. It’s all about profits. It’s all about market shares, and it’s all at the expense of our kids,” he said.
“Every day, you see and obituary in the paper of young people dying suddenly. You know that’s a tragedy for the family,” Kelaher said.
The lawsuit is not costing the township any money, he said. The law firm is confident that they will win, and all of the plaintiffs will share in any money awarded. But the main goal is to use the suit to force changes in the pharmaceutical industry so that these drugs won’t be so widespread.
“The Toms River Council and Mayor Kelaher recognize that they must take dramatic action to bring critical aid, treatment, and other resources into the community to combat the opioid crisis,” said Motley Rice LLC co-founder Joe Rice in a press release.
“We are ready to hit the ground running to help Toms River. It is only through strong leadership and an all-around approach that real change can happen,” said Andrew D’Arcy of D’Arcy Johnson Day, in a press release.
The team leading the case is led by Rice and Linda Singer, former attorney general of Washington, D.C. Other entities that have joined the complaint include the city of Chicago; counties of Santa Clara in California, Albany in New York, and Summit in Ohio; and the states of Alaska, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
Another Way To Fight
This lawsuit is just one way to fight the opioid epidemic, and the other aspects are still being done, officials said.
Education is used to try to prevent addictions before they start, Chief Little said. Officers are in the schools. Residents are informed of how unused medications can get into the wrong hands.
Enforcement is another key, but there has been challenges. Dealers are still being arrested, but with bail reform, some of them are right back out on the street, Little said.
There’s also a disconnect after someone is brought in to a hospital. The hospital can’t keep them there. It’s not a jail. So, they are released and go back to their habit.
“We deal with the same person two or three times a day,” he said, and one of those times, they might not be able to be saved.
The county has a program called Blue HART, in which anyone wanting treatment can come into a police station, turn in their drugs, and be screened for an addiction program. This program is active in Brick, Manchester, Lacey, Stafford, and Ocean Gate.
It’s not officially in Toms River, but they do their own version, Little said. Anybody who comes into the department asking for help is not going to get turned away. The problem is that it is hard to find space at rehab centers for this volume of people. And, if they’re not given help right away, they might not ask a second time.
These rehab places also need to be vetted to make sure they are helping addicts and doing what they are supposed to be doing, he said.
“Whenever you have a program, you have people who will take advantage of it,” he said.
Some of these facilities are out of state. When an addict completes a portion of their treatment, they are released to a halfway house in that area, so that can cause problems in those towns.