Heroin and opioid addiction have killed more than 5,000 people and enslaved hundreds of thousands more in New Jersey over the last decade. If you put all those addicted into one town it would be “Herointown“, or the fourth largest city in the state. It’s composed of people from every walk of life, and likely includes people you know. NJ Advance Media reporter Stephen Sterling devoted the last year to investigating the heroin explosion in New Jersey. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams recently spoke with him about the research that went into creating Herointown.
Williams: What was the initial goal of Herointown?
Sterling: It was a couple of things. There’s been as lot of great coverage on the heroin epidemic in New Jersey over the last couple of years, but one thing I noticed is that people didn’t seem to be connecting with it. There seemed to be a distance from it. I wanted to find a way to not only open people’s eyes to the fact that this is happening all around them, but also to show people that are going through it, whether it be addicts or recovering addicts or family members, that they’re not alone struggling through this.
Williams: What surprised you the most in the reporting?
Sterling: I think the most surprising thing was that people were willing to be so open with me about what they were going through. We put out the call to people to share their stories with us and the response was so overwhelming.
Williams: Was there a built up need for them to share, reach out?
Sterling: Absolutely. We got so many responses and people shared so much. Some of their responses were more than 2,000 words long, so there was just this pent up need to get it out there.
Williams: Why the frame Herointown?
Sterling: I think the idea was just to sort of change the frame in which we were looking at it. I think we’re so used to seeing heroin addicts in abandoned buildings like Paterson and Newark or something like that. That’s certainly part of the story, but it’s not the entire story. We wanted to create something that people could relate to to show people that this is not only a large problem, but it’s something that exists all around.
Williams: You came up with a number of 128,000 addicts. Is that really quantifiable?
Sterling: Yeah. We make the point that it’s probably low. We went through a lot of data to come up with that number and to come up with an estimate that we were comfortable with and ran it by experts in the field. We know that there are variables that we can’t count on, like people who are receiving treatment outside of the state. We came up with a number and we kind of went Price is Right rules. We wanted to get a number that we knew it would have an impact and that we knew we were comfortable in saying this is an accurate figure, although understanding that it’s probably lower than what it is.
Williams: Is there adequate treatment? Are there enough treatment facilities to handle the problem?
Sterling: Certainly not enough treatment facilities right now. There are waiting lists, you know, virtually in every residential treatment center in New Jersey. There is outpatient treatment. The thing is that no treatment works for everybody. We would have solved this problem if that were the case. Connecting people with various different things and finding the thing that works for them is probably the biggest challenge.
Williams: What’s the impact on the addict who’s made the courageous decision to reach out and go get help and then to be turned away because there’s not enough beds available?
Sterling: Frankly it could be death. There’s so many in the story. Robert Budsock from Integrity House has said he’s had to turn away somebody, or put them on a waiting list, and that the mother of that person ended up writing them and said he had died while he was waiting. Addicts often live on a hair trigger and it’s a difficult thing for them to put their hand up and say, “I need help” and then to be turned away. Not just necessarily shunned completely, but to say I can’t give it to you right now.
Williams: You wrote that the alternatives to treatment are only three: the streets, the cell or the cemetery. Really is it that dire? That grim?
Sterling: That’s the thing that came through when we received all of these responses from people going through this is obviously the details of everybody’s stories are different, but the path of addiction is pretty much the same. They are a very, very small minority of people that can sort of live a normal life and have this addiction attached to them.
Williams: Why do you think this is happening? Based on your reporting have you drawn some conclusions about why this is happening? This is a cheap drug and it’s available, but why are people saying yes?
Sterling: It’s certainly a combination of things. The thing that people point most to is the proliferation of prescription opioids as sort of a gateway if you will. People, younger people in particular, view them as safe because they are FDA approved. After that it doesn’t take long to get addicted. After that it becomes more of an economic decision. You have heroin for $5 a bag in most cases and it’s very pure and some say it’s a better high, so it just becomes the alternative when prescription pills become too expensive on the street.
Williams: What do you hope people take away from this series?
Sterling: I hope that for the public that may not have known about this, or sort of have been shunning that it may be in their backyard, that this will open their eyes up to reach out to people in their lives that may be dealing with this and to try to gain a better understanding about what this state is going through. Perhaps more importantly is for people who are living through this, family members in particular that are suffering from this, to understand that they are not alone, that there are thousands of people that are going through this all around them, as well and to reach out to other people. That in and of itself could be a powerful thing to understand; that you’re not suffering in silence.
Williams: What do you hope lawmakers take away from this? This is a state where we’ve undergone prison reform. We’re in the process of doing that and there seems to be some predisposition to helping these people rather than incarcerating them.
Sterling: There has been a lot of legislative action. Sen. Joe Vitale did lead a pretty significant effort recently in the state. What it comes down to is we still don’t seem to have enough treatment capacity to deal with this. Ultimately the answer to this is going to come in some form of money needs to be put towards this in some form or another. I know that’s not something in this environment that people want to think about. I hope it would at least pull people together to try and take a hard look at this and realize what we’ve done so far, while little things, are all well and good, but we’re still dealing with a pretty massive problem and we need a pretty significant fix.