By John Burton
From the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. to here in Monmouth County, local legislators on the national and state level are taking a stand on heroin and opioid abuse.
In the House of Representatives in the nation’s capital, U.S. Representative Frank Pallone Jr., (D-6) is working to advance a collection of 18 bills making their way through the various House committees, including his own Energy and Commerce Committee, that take aim at ways to combat the drug abuse.
State Senator Jennifer Beck (R-11), here in Monmouth County, has been conducting town hall meetings, in cooperation with the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, to bring home the important, alarming message – especially to parents – of how widespread the problem is here and everywhere.
“This is a problem not only in the urban areas,” Pallone said this week. “It’s suburban, rural. It’s every class, every racial and ethnic group.”
“I don’t think Monmouth County residents fully acknowledge that the people who are affected are college graduates, from good families and have bright futures,” said Beck.
She said many of the abusers of prescription painkillers and heroin are 18-to-27-year-olds.
The House bills take a multi-pronged approach, addressing the issue from a variety of angles, from the health and physician perspective, to law enforcement. In the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee, with Pallone the leading Democrat among the committee’s 50-plus members, the committee offered its bi-partisan, unanimous support for the bills in this package it was reviewing.
One of those bills would allow patients to only partially fill a pain medication prescription. Pallone said that would prevent unused commonly prescribed opiate-based painkillers from being available for family members or others to get their hands on from medicine cabinets. “What we’re trying to avoid is having a lot of medication around the house not being used,” he said.
“It sounds like it’s simple, but it’s important,” offering a tighter control on the availability of the drugs, Pallone said.
Another of the bills mirrors what is already on the books in New Jersey, placing greater control on over-the-counter cough suppressants, containing a widely abused additive. The bill would prevent anyone under 18 from being able to purchase cough syrup containing dextromethorphan, commonly referred to as DMX. According to information provided by Pallone’s office, estimates have one in 30 teenagers admitting to abusing cough syrup containing DMX, with some acknowledging taking more than 25 times the recommended dosages to get high.
While New Jersey currently has this restriction, “Most states don’t have this,” the congressman said.
Buprenophine is a pain medication less addictive than oxycodone or other counterpart prescriptions. But physicians are limited to the number of prescriptions they can write, fearing health care providers would over prescribe it. “That’s not really the problem,” Pallone maintained. “The problem is the long waiting list of people who don’t have access to it,” and the bill would allow doctors to have as many as 250 patients (from the current 100) with the prescription.
Other bills are under consideration with various committees, such as the Judiciary and Veterans Affairs addressing different parts of the issue. Overall these bills “are ways to try to prevent abuse and make it less likely people get addicted,” he said. These bills, among other things, help stem the tide of prescription abuse, “no question a gateway drug,” to heroin and other substance abuse, Pallone said.
U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R-4), who along with Pallone represents Monmouth County in the House, offered his support for the bill package, saying in a statement last week, “The scale of the epidemic is overwhelming the capacity of our substance abuse infrastructure and additional tools and resources are needed to help communities – and families – cope.”
The extent of the issue is no less profound for Monmouth County, with Beck working in cooperation with Acting Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni conducting informational town hall meetings around the county. Last month they held them in Freehold Borough and Ocean Township. Beck said plans are in the works for another to be held in Long Branch.
Gramiccioni and his staff have been conducting similar presentations in high schools around the county for the last few years.
Beck said her intention is to drive home the point to parents that this is everyone’s problem and affects all communities. “The message is don’t ever think it can’t be your kid,” she said. By and large, “It’s not kids involved in gangs,” she stressed. “It’s kids who got off the right track, either by choice or chance.”
The numbers are alarming: Charles Webster, county prosecutor spokesman said that in 2013 Monmouth County had 77 heroin-related deaths out of a total of 83 drug-related fatalities. Going back to 2010 there were 48 heroin/opioid-related deaths out of 67 total overdose fatalities. Last year, the incomplete numbers have the total at 107 heroin/opioid overdose deaths, out of a total 121 drug fatalities.
In comparison, Webster added, 2015 had nine total homicides for the county and 47 traffic fatalities.
Beck pointed out that drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for 18-27-year-olds in Monmouth County.
“It’s pervasive,” in the county, Webster said.
Pallone expects the bills to come to House floor for a full vote either later this month or earlier next and predicts easy passage.
The one disappointment, however, is none of the bills offer any additional funding to support treatment. “We’re still working on it,” Pallone said, with the “we” meaning Congressional Democrats. Republicans, he said, continue to oppose additional spending without corresponding budget cuts.
Beck said the proposed state budget under discussion in Trenton offers additional funding for treatment.
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