By Briana Vannozzi
The stark reality is, we’re not yet winning the war on opioid addiction. According to the New Jersey Medical Examiner’s Office there were 1,587 drug related deaths in 2015. Compare that to years past — just over 1,300 in 2014 and 780 in 2013.
“Particularly in Monmouth and Ocean counties, we have some of the highest rates of drug abuse and misuse in the state of New Jersey,” said Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden.
So the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office is holding a unique heroin forum in the fight against opiate abuse. Now in its second year, it’s called the Student Ambassadors for Heroin Use Prevention, bridging students and leaders of county and state agencies to find solutions.
“These are our young leaders from around the county of Monmouth here. We call them ambassadors so that they go back to their respective schools and educate and talk to their peers about what they’ve learned today. And it also gives us a lot of information about what their perception is,” Golden said.
“You’re here for a reason. We need your leadership, we need your passion, most important we need your dedication because we can’t do this alone,” said Doug Collier, drug initiative coordinator and law enforcement liaison for the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General.
“My friend’s brother, he just died of an overdose. His brother died in a drunk car accident. I feel like a lot of our peers, our family members are dying because of car accidents, because of drunk driving, because of these pills and these addictions,” said Bella Roucco, a junior at Howell High School.
In 2016, Monmouth County lost 164 residents to opiate related deaths. After an information session to get students up to speed on the latest in the epidemic, they broke out into group sessions, brainstorming where to go next.
“We don’t have all the answers and the numbers show that, so with them being innovative and progressive in their thinking will help us. They may tell us something that we didn’t know,” Collier said.
“They should be straight foward with us at a younger age to maybe scare us and then we’ll realize we’re not invincible and that we can’t be doing this stuff. That it’s only going to hurt us in the long term,” said Eli Avivi, a junior at Manalapan High School.
He wants honest, open dialogue. “Yeah, I mean, that’s what I was confronted by when I was younger,” he said.
“I mean we have all these programs, we have people coming in to the middle schools telling them not to do any of this and still people just do it. If they’re not willing to change, they won’t change,” Roucco said.
According to Golden, it was student ambassador feedback that led to a speaker series bringing people in recovery from addiction to classrooms. And it’s had a positive influence.
“We just have to make it a conversation. It can’t be one lesson one week out of the year. It needs to be talked about all the time,” said Poseidon High School Principal Richard Allen.
The agencies will then take these strategies and solutions and put them to work in action plans so these students become peer leaders in the fight against, not with, opioid addiction.