nj.com: The opioid epidemic has claimed thousands of N.J. lives. A group of experts is seeking local fixes.


More than 100 people gathered on Wednesday for the Knock Out Opioid Abuse summit at the Newark Museum. (Karen Yi | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
More than 100 people gathered on Wednesday for the Knock Out Opioid Abuse summit at the Newark Museum. (Karen Yi | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

It’s an epidemic that claimed more than 3,000 lives in New Jersey last year and another 500 in the first three months of this year.

And now state and federal officials say it’s time to join forces to combat the public health epidemic of our lifetime: the opioid crisis.

On Wednesday, law enforcement, health experts and policy leaders gathered for the Knock Out Opioid Abuse summit to figure out how to work together to end the epidemic. The summit, led by the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, kicked off a series of 21 town halls across the state as part of a two-year program to tailor solutions to specific communities.

“This is the first time in 100 years we’ve had two and three years of decreasing life expectancy,” said Dr. Rita Noonan, deputy director for Non-Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “That’s perspective. Drugs are significantly affecting our life span in the U.S.”

Most people in the state know somebody who has been affected by the growing opioid problem.

“It’s such a horrible disease and there are no solutions that are actually working today,” said Suzanne Kunis, director of behavioral health for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield NJ. “There are a lot of services available but the system is kind of broken. We have to invest in making significant change.”

Health experts agreed they could not “arrest their way out” of the problem or “treat their way out," but had to break their silos to find ways to reach potential and current opioid abusers.

Federal law enforcement representatives said they’ve launched drug take back programs and the nation’s first opioid abuse prevention and enforcement unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey.

Dr. Noonan said the crisis began with doctors overprescribing opioids around 2010. “It really primed our population to have a taste for opioids,” she said.

Then the first major wave of heroin-related deaths began; heroin was cheap as the drug market exploited rising demand. Now, overdose deaths are increasingly linked to synthetically-manufactured opioids, like fentanyl.

Noonan predicts a fourth wave of overdose deaths caused as fentanyl is increasingly mixed into the cocaine supply.

Thomas Vincz, a state spokesman for Horizon, said the two-year program will include parent and prescriber education programs and better focus on communities where the opioid epidemic is worse.

In 2018, 3,118 people died from drug overdoses in the state, a majority of which were opioid related. More than half involved fentanyl.

For more information and a list of the town hall meetings, visit knockoutopioidabuse.drugfreenj.org.