Target: Opioid Abuse
By Bill Barlow

DENNISVILLE – Pain is part of life.

That wasn’t the central message at a town hall meeting entitled “Knock Out Opioid Abuse,” April 19 at the Dennis Township Senior Center, but it was part of what the panel of speakers offered when talking about how people start using opioids and how difficult it can be to stop.

Residents, law enforcement, medical professionals, and others crowded the main room of the center. The event was one of several presented around the state through the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey and Horizon Blue Cross/Blue Shield New Jersey.

Cape Assist collaborated on the meeting.

Speakers discussed the scope of problems with opioid abuse, both from prescription medications and heroin. In many cases, what later becomes abuse begins as medically recommended pain medication, several speakers indicated.

At times, the user is trying to address physical pain, or others face other kinds of pain, from trauma, life circumstances, or undiagnosed issues.

Leading the discussion, Angelo M. Valente, executive director of Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, said student-athletes have a higher likelihood of addiction issues than their peers because they are more likely to be prescribed opioid-based pain relievers due to injuries. 

Not long ago, hospitals were under strong pressure to prescribe powerful painkillers, in part because there were financial benefits to getting good scores on patient evaluation. There was a concern that doctors were not doing enough to relieve patient pain.

The speakers indicated that things went too far, with too little consideration given to the potential for abuse or addiction.

Tonia Ahearn, one of the founders of the New Jersey organization Parent to Parent, stressed that each individual is different and each will react differently to the same dose of medication.

Some will not even complete the initial prescription of painkillers, but for others, opioids will immediately have a strong and lasting impact on their lives.

Valente added that heroin has the same effect on the body and mind as do prescription opioid-based painkillers, and is far, far cheaper.

In some cases, a dose of heroin can be bought for $5 compared to $40 or more for a prescription pill purchased on the black market.

While part of the discussion was on helping people, especially young people, to avoid substance abuse in the first place, there was extensive discussion of the difficulties in getting help for someone ready to quit.

Katheryn Gibson, a substance use navigator, said most people who abuse addictive substances need help getting clean. 

Some have been able to kick a physical addiction, she said, but the outcome is far likely to be better with the use of medicines like Suboxone and Methadone.

“A lot of people really look down on using medically assisted treatment,” she said. “I’ve heard it’s a crutch, you’re just giving them a drug to get off the drug. What they’re not understanding is that the research out there now says medically assisted treatment applied with counseling is the most successful option.

“If someone can do it without medication, that’s amazing. If that’s possible, that’s always my suggestion,” she said.

But for most trying to quit, that won’t work. She said she’s spoken to many young adults in their 20s who attempted to quit dozens of times without success. Some have spent years in treatment. “And that isn’t a life.”

She spoke of one patient who struggled to quit for years. With medically assisted treatment, she is sober, she has a job, she’s living a normal life, Gibson said.

Another option, Vivitrol, blocks the receptors so that after a shot, the patient will not be able to get high for 28 days. It can’t be the complete solution, but it can offer one more reason for someone to stay clean another day.

The community has come a long way in recent years, said Ahearn, but it’s still difficult for people to get treatment when they are ready for it.


Part of the issue is fear. She said families are still reluctant to talk about issues with addiction, and children and teens are afraid to seek help when they need it.

Speaking personally, she said her one son struggled with substance abuse, and that affected how her other children were treated.

“There’s a lot of judging that takes place in the school system,” she said. “My other children suffered from that stigma, and people judging them, thinking that he made a decision and they’re going to make the same decision.

“Because of the stigma, they won’t reach out for help, because they don’t want to be judged the same as their brother.”

Beyond that, it can be difficult to get help when someone is ready to seek it.

“What we end up seeing is that acquiring treatment is really an overwhelming project,” said Gibson.

That can include difficulty in getting admitted to a facility and to getting support after treatment.

“We have clients who need detox or residential treatment and are told to call every day until we have a bed open. That could be days or even months,” she said.

As families trying to help someone struggling with substance abuse know, time can be the biggest issue. Someone going through withdrawal is suffering and knows the fastest way to relieve that suffering. “They probably won’t wait three hours.”

When the meeting was open to questions, some described the issue as overwhelming and called for more resources in the community, but also expressed hope that the community seemed united and pragmatic in its approach to the issue.

Among the speakers were Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland and Assemblyman Bruce Land (D-1st).