It started with marijuana, followed by pills; then cocaine and eventually heroin.
Steve Willis’ son Mark had gone from being “wonderful” to only caring about his next fix. He had gone from boy scouts to a courtroom at just 14, as his father pressed criminal charges for possession of drugs, criminal mischief and theft.
“If addiction is in my family, and all the madness that flows from it, it may be in yours,” said Willis at Lacey Township’s Red Night Out, an event created to educate the community on drug abuse.
Willis, a local attorney, struggled to effectuate a meaningful consequence for his son. He tried punishment, talked to teachers and had family counseling. Nothing worked.
“I thought I was a good parent. I mean, I am,” he said. “It was the most humbling experience of my life. I’m a man and an attorney, which means I think I can fix everything. But I couldn’t. I kept wondering how it was that I became an ineffectual parent all of a sudden.”
When his son stood before the judge, with an offer of jail or treatment, Mark said, “I have the God given right to get high,” ultimately finding himself in juvenile detention.
His son later agreed to rehab, returned to addiction when he was released, but is now a recovering addict.
“Mark has been the toughest client I’ve ever had but ultimately, I’m blessed and pleased to tell you that he got healthy and he remains so as I speak to you tonight,” Willis said.
‘This is Our Problem’
Nearly 800 people attended Lacey’s Red Night Out, held at Lacey Township High School Wednesday night, to listen to stories like Willis’ and hear from experts in the field.
In 2012, there were 43 drug overdoses in Lacey Township, 10 of which resulted in deaths, Capt. David Paprota said.
“That’s a lot of people dead in Lacey Township,” he said.
Just two months into 2013, there have been five overdoses with one death, remaining on par or possibly exceeding previous years, he said.
“Youth today are dealing with a lot more than our generation ever did and I think they’re hungry. They’re hungry emotionally and spiritually,” Pastor Linda Applegate said. “They’re turning to drugs.”
As a member of the Lacey Township Task Force, Applegate helped coordinate the event. But Applegate wasn’t there as a representative of the Lacey United Methodist Church or even a member of the Task Force, but as someone who has been directly affected by addiction.
Applegate has had to face all the “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve” scenarios after the death of a family member as a result of addiction, she said.
“I’m here to tell you Lacey’s youth is amazing and there is great potential and possibility for each one of them and we don’t want to lose one more at all,” she said.
A photo of a lighthouse was projected on stage and the audience identified the landmark as Barnegat Light.
“If we can so easily recognize this landmark, how can we so easily miss what’s going on in our homes?” event moderator Dr. Dennis Pontani said.
Approximately 40 percent of teenagers think prescription drugs are safer than heroin and cocaine, he said. Only 50 percent of kids think prescriptions are addictive. More than 40 people die daily from taking a prescription drug. Every day 1,500 American youth take a prescription pain reliever to get high.
“We can make a big change just by changing what we’re doing at home,” said Pontaini, adding that more than 70 percent of prescription drugs come from the home and friends of the addict. “When you go home tonight, the first thing to do is clean your house.”
Drug abuse is not a socioeconomic issue, said Pontani, who has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for more than 20 years. More than 88 percent of those drug abusers in 2011 were white.
“This is hitting all of us right here at home,” he said. “This is our problem.”
From 2006 to 2011 there was an increase of 5,000 hospital admissions due to heroin and opiates. But what’s startling, Pontani said, is that 35 percent of all admissions were in Ocean and Monmouth Counties.
Enforcement is Not Enough
The signs of drug abuse show in an addict physically, behaviorally and psychologically, Pontani said.
Other ways to remain aware and vigilant is by staying current and educated, Paprota said. For example, knowing the terms used today. In Lacey, marijuana is particularly referred to as weed, refer, 420, bud, pot, steez, steezin, danks, midz, chronic and grass.
Lacey residents are using everything from marijuana, prescriptions and ecstasy to meth — although not widely used — cocaine and heroin. One of the 10 deaths in 2012 was due to crack.
Lacey also has dozens of its own dealers, who are attempting to supply for their own habit, Paprota said. While locally, a bag of heroin may cost $10 to $15, kids are traveling to Trenton, Atlantic City and Neptune to get it for cheaper.
“We do hold people accountable. We have an aggressive approach to enforcement, especially with respect to heroin, but that’s not enough,” he said. “It’s not enough to go out and arrest dealers because there’s supply and demand. If there’s a demand for anything, there’s always going to be a supply. That’s just a fact.”
Paprota reflected on a story that happens all too often. Years ago, there was a young, well-rounded girl from a good family, who began dating a troubled boy. Her mother denied the possibility of wrongdoing when warned only to find herself weeping at the police department when she learned her daughter was addicted to heroin and prostituting herself in Lakewood, he said.
“More important at this point, for your kids, for yourself, for your family, is obviously what we’re doing here tonight — getting the information out, prevention, recognizing issues,” Paprota said. "The number of people here tonight tells me there is a chance to make a difference in what's going on."
Chris Pyne has two kids, 11 and nine years old, and said she enjoyed each of the presenters but the statistics were alarming.
“Education is going to be helpful to me as they get older,” she said. “It hit home how prevalent the problem is in Lacey Township.”
Residents can find helpful resources, crime alerts and a tool to submit anonymous crime tips on the Lacey Township Police Department’s website.
Prescription drugs can also be dropped off at the police department 24/7 for disposal.
Call 800-662-HELP to find substance abuse and mental health treatment. Also, visit the Ocean County Health Department’s website for assistance.
The Department of Children and Families can also offer help at 1-855-INFO-DCF.