CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – Opioid abuse is on the rise in New Jersey, an alarming trend that has driven an increase in drug-related deaths throughout the state, officials said, and in October, community members and lawmakers will come together during Knock Out Opioid Abuse Day to raise awareness of the potential that opioid abuse and misuse has to destroy lives.

In Cape May County, 32 people were killed in 2015 by drug overdoses. Three of the deaths were attributed to cocaine. Eighteen to heroin. The rest were caused by opioids, according to state records.

Statewide, 1,454 people died in 2015 as a result of a drug overdose, increasing from 1,253 in 2014, a rise that the Centers for Disease Control warned is a significant increase in drug-related deaths.

The main cause of drug overdose deaths nationwide is opioids, both illicit and prescription. According to the CDC, opioids were involved in 33,091 New Jersey deaths in 2015, and opioid overdoses overall have quadrupled since 1999.

Yet, far too often, opioid abuse starts at home, and not at the hands of a drug dealer, said Natalia Wilber, healthy community coalition coordinator at Cape Assist.

“More than half of the kids using prescription drugs don’t get them from the streets,” Wilber said. “They get them from medicine cabinets.”

Unused, out-of-date, or forgotten medicines – such as oxycodone, used in Percocet; hydrocodone, used in Vicodin or Lorcet; propoxyphene, used in Darvon – that are left in cabinets or cupboards can be found and misused by other family members – especially young, inquisitive teens.

As the head of the Cape May County Healthy Community Coalition, it’s Wilber’s job to find ways to reduce or prevent substance abuse in the county. She does that with the help of community members, concerned parents and caregivers, law enforcement, students, educators, faith leaders and business people.

“We bring community members together to find ways to reduce the risk factors for abusing drugs or alcohol,” she said.

The coalition was created in 1995, and is dedicated to reducing substance abuse in Cape May County. It has more than 300 members, and includes law enforcement, students, educators, parents, faith leaders and business people.

“We bring community members together to create and promote alcohol, tobacco and drug free environments for our children and youth.” Wilber said.

The coalition meets bi-monthly to discuss ideas and formulate plans that can raise awareness of the dangers that come with using alcohol, marijuana in teen years, and how drug abuse can change the trajectory of a teen’s life, she said.

“Our mission is to work together to build healthy a healthy community by reducing substance abuse,” she said. “We’re here for the entire community, but a lot of our focus is on the youth.”

Prevention, Wilber said, starts when children are young and impressionable. And while she and other coalition members work every day to keep children drug-free, they’ll join with others in the state for added emphasis on Knock Out Opioid Abuse Day, Friday, Oct. 6.

The statewide project is a partnership for a drug-free New Jersey, in cooperation with the Governor's Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse; the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Addiction Services; and the Community Coalition for a Safe and Healthy Morris, with help from thousands of volunteers across the state.

Across the state, New Jersey legislators will join with concerned citizens, impacted families and substance abuse professionals to lead an effort to raise awareness about the opioid abuse epidemic. Families, local leaders and concerned citizens will work together to raise awareness of the potential for dependency on prescribed pain medicine and its link to heroin abuse, according to a statement from the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.

Locally, Wilber said the coalition has plans to work with area pizza restaurants to include cards on every box that identify Project Medicine Drop boxes throughout the county. They would also like to distribute the cards at area pharmacies.

“Atlantic County is doing the same thing, and people love it,” Wilber said. “People often call and want to know what to do with their expired drugs.”

The card, she said, shows them how to safely get rid of unneeded, unwanted or expired drugs.

“We want people to at least clean out their medicine cabinets,” she said. “A drop box ensures that it’s secured, stored, and properly disposed of.”

Wilber said the coalition is always looking for new members, and new ideas to reduce substance abuse in the community. For more information, contact Natalia Wilber at 609-522-5960.

Middle Township Gazette reporter. Call me anytime you have news for the paper or the website. 609-365-6176