CAMDEN, N.J. — More than 80% of those arrested in Camden, N.J., for possessing or seeking narcotics are from suburban communities, said Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson.
A three-day operation in May netted 45 buyers — 36 of whom were from the South Jersey suburbs or Philadelphia. A similar daylong sting in April 2012 snared 49 buyers — 70% of them from outside Camden.
Earlier in 2012, an operation using the city's Eye in the Sky network of surveillance cameras recorded license plate numbers of vehicles police suspected were involved in North Camden drug buys. Authorities found 90% of some 600 suspected buyers were from outside Camden.
Heroin use and arrests in Camden have steadily increased over the past five years, a trend Thomson — like many in law enforcement — contends is "precipitated by the pandemic of opioid prescription drug abuse of the most popular pills OxyContin, Vicodin, Percodan and Percocet."
He explained many addicts seek stronger drugs such as heroin after their body develops a tolerance to pain pills.
"But even heroin, after a while, loses its euphoric effect," Thomson said. "The addict needs the drug not for a 'high,' rather to keep from getting 'sick,' most commonly referred to as the 'Dope Flu.'
"The pain from this is what causes them to steal from friends and family."
"It's not hitting just people who are poor on the socioeconomic scale; it's crossing every boundary," said Gloucester City Police Chief George Berglund.
"It seems as though it's getting worse," he added.
Berglund's department has been making more heroin-related arrests than in prior years and many of those being charged are from the suburbs.
"I actually talk to people when we arrest them on heroin and ask them what gets them started," he said. "They all say pills."
Gloucester Township Police Chief Harry Earle and Washington Township Capt. Richard Leonard report similar findings.
"I can clearly say we've seen the increase in prescription-pill drug abuse and arrests and then that carrying over to them becoming addicted to heroin as a consequence," said Earle.
"What you typically see is, people in many cases start out getting addicted to prescription medications," said Leonard. "Because of the cost factors involved with the prescription medications, sometimes they progress into heroin because it is cheaper."
Kyle, 26, who spoke under the condition his last name be withheld, openly admitted to stealing and shoplifting to feed his habit. He said he sold some stolen goods to Camden bodegas. According to state Department of Corrections records, he was sentenced in March 2012 on two counts of shoplifting and one count of burglary and was in prison nearly three months.
But drug use also leads to violent crime. About 80% of Camden's shootings and homicides have a connection to the drug trade, Thomson said.
A deadly secret
"I was one of the parents who would say: 'Never my son,' " said Gregg Wolfe.
The Voorhees, N.J., resident lost his 21-year-old son, Justin, to a heroin overdose in December.
"There were signs, but not signs I could discern as a parent. I was totally — as well as everyone in our family, including his brother — taken aback by (Justin's) heroin use."
Those who did know weren't permitted to speak up.
Earlier that year, Justin told his family doctor about his heroin use and addiction to prescription painkillers. He also instructed the physician to inform only his mother of the latter issue and keep his father in the dark entirely. (The parents are divorced.)
Wolfe learned of his son's Percocet addiction two months later. It wasn't until Justin hit rock bottom that summer that he agreed to enter a five-week outpatient rehab.
Gregg Wolfe contacted the facility about his son's condition, but privacy rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) barred him from receiving any information.
In New Jersey, the general rule is a parent must consent to treatment for a child under 18, said Julie Kligerman, associate counsel at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine.
But minors can receive treatment without a parent's consent for exemptions such as drug and alcohol abuse, sexual assault and pregnancy.
Meanwhile, Justin, who had split his studies between Drexel, Syracuse and Temple universities, was selling his Suboxone (a drug given to recovering addicts) and Adderall and buying street drugs in Camden and North Philadelphia.
In April, Wolfe testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and asked that an exception be added to HIPAA that would allow parents of children with life-threatening mental disorders or addictions to access their medical records.
His request includes adult children living under the auspices of their parents' care or covered by their insurance. He continues to work with Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., to craft legislation.
"The (HIPAA) law should protect the confidentiality of a patient's medical information, but this confidentiality has to be balanced against a family's right to help its loved ones," Andrews said in an email.
"We are working to clarify this law to strike the right balance between protecting patient privacy and preventing tragedy."
Wolfe also founded an awareness group called Squash the Secret. The organization educates parents about the signs of addiction so they are not taken by surprise.
"Nine out of 10 parents I spoke with since Justin's passing — adults — have no clue that you could snort heroin," Wolfe noted.
He also said most parents don't realize the drug is cheap — $5 to $10 a bag.
"Parents don't know. You get so blindsided," said Joan, a fellow member of Squash the Secret.
The Glassboro, N.J., resident, who asked that her last name be withheld, watched her 35-year-old son, Matt, struggle with addiction for more than a decade.
Matt began using crack and cocaine as a teen. He got help and kicked the habit at 17. Two years later, he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a form of bone cancer.
Around age 23, Matt's self-destructive tendencies — combined with a toxic relationship — led him to pills and eventually heroin.
Over the next dozen years, he was determined to kick the habit. He went through seven inpatient rehabs, attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings, meditated and tried to go back to church.
Ultimately he turned to a controversial treatment involving a hallucinogen illegal in the U.S. that he credits with his recovery.
Matt traveled to Mexico for a 10-day detox ceremony using Ibogaine, a powerful psychotropic plant used in spiritual rituals by some African cultures. His journey was featured on the HBO documentary series VICE earlier this year.
Matt has been clean for 18 months.
He described part of the experience as feeling like "somebody took like all the pain that you caused everyone that loved you and made you feel it."
But he cautioned that Ibogaine should be a last resort and recommended long-term, inpatient rehab first.
For those who survive and want help, or those seeking to avoid overdose, options differ depending on an addict's circumstances and access to insurance.
John Pellicane, alcohol and drug abuse director for the Camden County Department of Health and Human Services, said the county is the payer of last resort — if funds are available — for the uninsured.
The requirements for assistance programs vary. For example, one offers help to those who have had a DUI arrest, while another is restricted to those between 18 and 24.
"South Jersey is infrastructure-poor for (residential) drug and alcohol treatment," Pellicane said.
Adrienne Cook of Parent-To-Parent, a Marlton, N.J.-based organization for parents and loved ones dealing with substance abuse, expressed similar concerns in an interview earlier this summer.
"There's not enough facilities to take care of all the people addicted."
Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez, who oversees the health department, said an expanded drug court system is a good first step, but intervention and treatment services prior to arrest are needed.
Patty DiRenzo of Blackwood, N.J., criticizes the state for allocating more funds toward incarceration than rehab.
"Putting these kids in prison is doing nothing."
DiRenzo, who lost her son, Salvatore Marchese, to a heroin overdose in 2010, championed the Overdose Prevention Act signed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in May. The law shields those who call 911 during an overdose situation from being prosecuted for drug possession.
"All the years I fought and struggled to get help for my son there was never funding available," she said.
The average wait to get into inpatient detox — considered safest for heroin addicts since their withdrawal symptoms should be medically monitored — is one to three weeks, Pellicane said.
"When someone reaches out for help, we need to be able to address that immediately and not have them sit and wait," Cook said.
DiRenzo agreed, pointing out young addicts have died from overdoses while on waiting lists for inpatient care.
"Outpatient does nothing. My son died while he was in outpatient."