SPARTA — With the United States experiencing a growing opioid crisis over the past several years, the statistics in Sussex County have followed a similarly grim trajectory.
According to Assistant Prosecutor Jerry Neidhardt, the county experienced 11 overdose deaths this past January alone, compared to only seven fatal overdoses throughout all of 2013.
State agencies are teaming up in hopes of preventing the death toll from rising further, with speakers from the Stop Opioid Abuse Program (SOAP) helping to spread awareness of the dangers of drug use to students at Sparta High School Wednesday.
During a 40-minute presentation in the school library, Neidhardt and other experts educated the students — many of whom serve as captains or in other leadership roles on the school’s teams — on the harmful effects of drugs and other substances. While Wednesday’s audience was relatively small, the goal is for those in attendance to take charge in passing along the lessons of drug abuse to their peers.
"You guys have the power, and what we hope to instill in you throughout this program is really to just start talking about it," said Ashley Brown, coalition coordinator for the Center for Prevention and Counseling. "If we know a friend that's struggling, make sure we're putting out a hand. We all need the help, and we all provide that education with one another through simple conversations."
The SOAP program originated about three years ago as a partnership between Garden State Pharmacy Owners and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. The initiative focuses primarily on student-athletes, who are generally more likely to develop an opioid addiction since they have a higher chance of getting injured and being prescribed medication to treat the pain.
Since the program’s founding, the partnership has grown to include agencies like the New Jersey Prevention Network, Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, NJ CARES, and local organizations like the Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office and the Center for Prevention and Counseling.
In referencing the uptick in opioid overdoses in the past few years, Neidhardt said roughly 75% of victims had ingested fentanyl, which he called "easily 100 times more powerful" than heroin. He noted that the substance is often mixed into medications like Xanax and Adderall, leading to an increased danger when taken for recreational use.
"You're literally playing Russian roulette when you're using drugs," Neidhardt said. "If somebody gives you a pill and says 'Hey, it's a Xanax pill, it's an Adderall pill,’ or something else, you have no idea what's in that pill. It may be a fentanyl pill, and you may take it and die. That is the reality that we're dealing with."
"There is no quality control with drugs," added Bill Ashnault, owner of Twin City Pharmacy in South Plainfield. "You need to be your best judge of that and don't get started, because once you get started, there's no way out. It's very tough."
The partners involved with Wednesday’s presentation expressed optimism that SOAP will help Sussex County reduce its opioid problem as more residents learn about the consequences of drug use. For that to happen, however, the students need to be proactive in spreading the message.
"That's what your role is now within this school. Your role is to spread the word to make sure that everybody knows how dangerous (opioid addiction) is," Sparta athletic director Steve Stoner told the students. "Just sitting and watching a video is not going to help anybody. Hearing it from friends, hearing it from their peers, their teammates, their classmates, is what's going to help make a difference."
Kyle Morel can also be contacted on Twitter: @KMorelNJH, on Facebook: Facebook.com/KMorelNJH, or by phone: 973-383-1292.