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A 'Helping Hand' Instead of Handcuffs in Fight Against Opioids

[Aug. 3, 2020: Tap into Paterson]

Crime hasn’t stopped during the coronavirus outbreak and neither have the law enforcement officers trying to fight it. “It’s been a time,” said Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes. “We had an election, COVID, protests and shooting sprees.”

And in the midst of that, many continue to struggle with addiction and concerns are on the rise that now, six months into the pandemic, more people could be pushed towards substance abuse.

"We watch trends statewide and take a look at what’s happening. Violence and substance abuse have been exacerbated by COVID,” Valdes said. “All major cities have had upticks in crime, especially shooting crimes. People are frustrated, uncertain and unsure of how to cope with problems they may be having. They are under a lot of stress. Job loss, social isolation and stress caused by COVID-19 have been difficult for everyone, but for someone with an addiction or in recovery, it could be too much to handle, Valdes said.

New Jersey, like many states across the country, has seen a spike in fatal opioid overdoses this year.

In Passaic County, there have already been 106 suspected overdose deaths, data collected by NJ Cares, the state’s coordinated opioid response effort, shows. In 2019, 171 deaths were reported for the entire year, according to data collected by the state.


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Statewide that data is even more staggering with 1,595 suspected fatal overdoses through June 30, a 17% increase when compared to the same period in 2019.

“The pandemic is something impacting all of us. All of our lives have been disrupted,” Valdes said. “The stresses and uncertainty could trigger people to search for ways to cope that could include drugs or alcohol. We want to make sure we communicate to the public that we’re all in this together.”

Despite the challenging times, Valdes said her office remains “committed to making sure people are connected to treatment and services.”

As part of that mission, the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office recently ran a week-long operation aimed at linking low-level drug offenders with the opportunity to get help.

During the operation, which ran from July 13 to 17, authorities focused their attention on Paterson’s open-air drug market, which regularly draws buyers spanning from South Jersey to Pennsylvania to New York, Valdes said.

“Paterson is different from other cities. The quality of the heroin is different there and Paterson is in close proximity to New York City – you could be in Washington Heights in 25 to 30 minutes. It’s also smaller and easier to navigate. It’s easy to get in, do your thing and get out onto Route 21 or 80,” she said.

Of the 37 individuals arrested during Operation Helping Hand, 89% (33 people) accepted substance abuse treatment and made arrangements to begin outpatient treatment at a later date or were transported directly to a treatment facility by a law enforcement officer.

Each person arrested during the initiative was privately screened by a peer recovery specialist from the Morris County Center for Addiction Recovery, Education and Success (CARES) in an effort to connect them with treatment and recovery services.

“The fact that we are working in partnership and collaboration with peer recovery specialists and substance abuse counselors/providers is a more compassionate approach than putting someone in jail,” Valdes said. “In jail, they can’t use, which is largely true, but the underlying issues are still there.”

“This process turns law enforcement encounters into an opportunity for individuals to turn their lives around and help break the cycle of addiction by connecting each individual with vital treatment, recovery and support services,” she said..... Read More



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