Cheap, pure, and deadly

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Heroin a growing concern in county

CAPE MAY COUNTY – A generation ago, heroin was all but unheard of in Cape May County.

Veteran officers say there were other illicit drugs sold throughout the Jersey Cape, but heroin, considered a scourge of urban areas, was rarely seen. During the 1970s, according to several sources, the heroin bought at the street level was usually less than 5 percent pure, the rest made up of anything the dealer had handy, from powder to brick dust. Starting in the 1990s, the highly addictive narcotic began to show up in Cape May County, both in arrest reports and in overdoses.

Now, heroin is readily available, despite steady arrests, and the drugs sold at the street level are purer than ever before – so pure that users can smoke or snort the drug rather than inject it.

Purer does not mean safer.

In the last several months, Cape May County has seen a rise in heroin-related arrests, overdoses and even deaths.

Over the weekend, a 19-year-old Wildwood woman and a 54-year-old Rio Grande woman died in separate incidents in Wildwood and Lower Township, which officials have linked to overdoses, and a 58-year-old Cape May man was hospitalized for an apparent heroin overdose in Wildwood.

Also this month, officials seized a handgun and 30 bags of heroin in Wildwood after a juvenile accidentally shot himself in the left hand and leg at the Blue Heron Motel.

Local police departments have been working with the prosecutor office’s Gangs, Guns and Narcotics Task Force to eradicate the drug from Cape May County.

That will be a tall order.

Heroin is widespread in Wildwood and Lower and Middle townships, according to Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor.

Middle Township Police Chief Chris Leusner attributes the increase of heroin to prescription drug use. People often move onto heroin from prescription painkillers because it’s cheaper, he said.

Heroin is very addicting and is often sold as a white or brown powder.

Taylor said the goal is to tackle the heroin problem before Cape May County resembles other counties, such as Atlantic and Camden. In March, more than 30 people involved with an Atlantic City heroin-trafficking ring were charged, according to news reports.

In Cape May County, most users snort and smoke heroin instead of injecting it using a syringe because the drug is so pure, Taylor said.

The drug is brought into Cape May County from Philadelphia, Camden, Atlantic City and Newark, according to Taylor. The county has seen a steady rise in the drug since 2006, he said.

Gangs are among those that distribute heroin, including the Bloods, and the drug is sold for about $25 a bag on the streets in Cape May County, according to Taylor. In Camden, a bag would sell for $4 or $5. A 2010 report showed an increase in gang presence in Cape May County, including several subgroups of the Bloods gang. State reports have linked the group to heroin distribution, and in 2006 a man was arrested in Villas as part of a statewide sweep of Bloods members He was charged with drug possession, including heroin.

There have been several other arrests of alleged Blood members, including a 2011 arrest that netted hundreds of bags of heroin and a 9mm handgun.

But there have also been numerous people charged with distribution in which no gang affiliation was alleged.

Most of the world’s heroin comes from poppy flowers growing in Afghanistan, despite long efforts to eradicate the lucrative cash crop. Some reports indicate Columbian grown poppies are now a major source for the drug in the United States, but the flower is also grown in Pakistan, Mexico and elsewhere in the Far East.

Morphine, opium and other drugs known as opiates have the same source, including many that are widely prescribed, such as codeine, and there are now numerous synthetic opiates available. Opium has been used and abused for thousands of years, but heroin was first synthesized in the late 19th century, and was originally a brand name for the readily available drug.

White heroin primarily comes from Colombia, mainly sold on the East Coast and “black tar” from Mexico is sold primarily in the western United States.

The top drug in Cape May County used to be cocaine, but that became too much of an expense for users, Taylor said.

People who get hooked on heroin often start with prescription medication like OxyContin, a synthetic opiate used to treat severe pain, according to Taylor. They switch to heroin because it’s cheaper, Taylor said.

OxyContin costs $1 per milligram, and heroin is $65 for three bags, according to Taylor. OxyContin has similar effects as heroin, he said. Some sources say that OxyContin can sell for $30 to $50 a pill.

Wildwood Police Chief Steve Long said his department has made more heroin-related arrests and search warrants, especially in the last six months. He said heroin is a significant problem in Cape May County.

Long said the department is receiving more complaints about drug sales in neighborhoods and on the street.

Taylor said the purity of heroin in Cape May County is strong and that the drug is potent.

The increase in heroin use has also led to more burglaries, home invasions and thefts, including copper pipes stolen from houses to be sold as scrap metal, Taylor said.

The number of those seeking treatment has also risen. In 2007, 225 people were treated at Cape Counseling Services in Middle Township, he said. At the end of 2012, there were more than 500 in treatment, according to Taylor.

Taylor said he has appealed to the Cape May County Board of Freeholders for more detectives in the prosecutor’s office, which would allow two teams to be out on the street in two municipalities as part of the Gangs, Guns and Narcotics Task Force.

“I hope it will be positive. I don’t know yet,” he said.

The freeholders have instituted a hiring freeze over the past two years, Taylor said. He did not want to say how many people are on the Gangs, Guns and Narcotics Task Force.

Taylor also said he wants to implement a program for students so they are made aware of the drug. Taylor said he hopes the program can launch in September or October. It would be an enhanced Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, which is taught by law enforcement officers, he said.

Young people can become addicted or even kill themselves with their first dose from heroin, Taylor said. Children as young as 13 have tried heroin in Cape May County, he said.

Leusner said that drugs are difficult to combat in law enforcement, but prescription drug drop offs have helped. People were able to dispose of their unused, unwanted or expired medications in Rio Grande in April.

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