In Newark, DEA launches comprehensive plan for battling opioid epidemic


By Briana Vannozz

Pablo Pizarro, pastor at Assembly of God Church in Newark recalled, “I’ve walked into bathrooms where my mother had a bag stuck to her, track marks all over, and she was overdosing.”

With the opioid epidemic at an all-time high, stories like that of Pablo Pizarro told this morning at a DEA press conference in Newark are becoming all too common, and breaking the cycle of violence and addiction generated by drugs is becoming increasingly difficult.

“I’ve seen my father put a fork in her ear and blow her eardrums open. I’ve seen my father hit her with a bat, intoxicated, and blow her knee cap. I should have been a drug addict, I should have been in the streets, but today I’m trying to fight for the very same kids who’ve seen what I saw.” said Pizarro.

Newark is now the ninth city in the U.S. designated under the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ‘360 Strategy,’ a comprehensive, three-pronged approach to help cities grappling with severe rates of heroin and prescription drug abuse.

“DEA does one thing very well: drug enforcement. But we recognize that this issue is much larger and more complex and enforcement alone is not enough to make lasting changes in our communities,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge of New Jersey Division Valerie Nickerson.

The program focuses on enforcement; keeping drugs out of the community and cracking down on trafficking by coordinating with law enforcement agencies throughout the state; diversion control; holding doctors and pharma companies accountable for overprescribing or skirting the law, which could mean losing their licenses or abilities to prescribe; and a community outreach to engage schools, churches and grassroots groups to promote prevention.

“We are specifically targeting those individuals who are bringing drugs into New Jersey, absolutely, and as we know, most of the fentanyl and the heroin is coming from China or Mexico,” said Agent Nickerson.

“Most of the time folks focus completely just on violence, on the homicides and things that are happening, and most of those things are happening because of their relationship to drugs,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

Essex County leads the state in the number of drug-related overdose deaths, with 156 so far for 2018 and over 1,200 statewide according to the Attorney General’s office. Nationally, there are 174 drug overdose deaths per day, according to the CDC.

“Just in one of our major Newark hospitals, there’s been over 500 percent [increase] diagnosis in ER visits due to opioids and an 89 percent increase in hospitalization,” said Dr. Mark Wade, director of the Newark Department of Health and Community Wellness.

Under New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, the state started the first ever opioid unit. It’s believed to be the only in the country, with six designated criminal prosecutors, a health care fraud unit and a partnership with the office of the Attorney General.

“The average number of cases brought last year by our office: 39. In the three months since our reorganization: 67. We’re up 79 percent, and that’s because my folks are working harder. We’ve redoubled our efforts on this front because we know it’s a serious epidemic.” said Carpenito.

Newark has already rolled out the Newark Cares Program with the public schools and police department aimed at helping kids who’ve experienced childhood trauma.

The 360 Strategy was deployed in South Jersey about six months ago. The DEA won’t speak to specifics there, but said they are seeing a decrease in violent crime and the amount of Narcan deployed. It’ll take at least a couple of months  before they can track results in Newark.