CAPE MAY – Brian Leach took his first shot of heroin at 8-years-old, a year after he started drinking alcohol and smoking pot. By age 12, he was incarcerated, first in juvenile detention, then jail, and finally the penitentiary, a pattern that would continue for 25 years.
Now, he is in long-term recovery and a husband, father, and businessman.
His story was part of the Oct. 2 Knock Out Opioid Abuse Town Hall, sponsored by the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey and The Horizon Foundation of New Jersey.
His story is shocking, but not unusual, as the opioid epidemic touches towns large and small, according to a panel of experts at the town hall.
Cape May Mayor Clarence Lear welcomed the attendees at Cape May Convention Hall, emphasizing how opioid addiction touches everyone.
“This is not the time to be naïve, uninformed or embarrassed about what is happening to our families,” Lear said.
Jonathan Pearson, executive director, The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, told of 3,100 statewide overdose deaths in 2018, many related to opioids and synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl.
“We are here today to look at some solutions as a community and the needs of Cape May County,” he said.
Jeffrey Schwartz, chef instructor, Lower Cape May Regional High School, brought a dozen of his students to the event to listen and ask questions, and to receive training in administering naloxone, an overdose antidote.
“I wanted my advance students to be aware of this issue. Opioid addiction is rampant in our industry,” Schwartz explained.
Culinary student and senior Zack Layton serves as an intern to Schwartz, and has experienced addiction in his family.
“I want to learn more about this issue from the presenters and I wanted to learn to administer Narcan (the brand name of naloxone),” Layton said.
Culinary student Catherine McElhaney said she attended to learn how to help.
“I don’t really know how to help people in addiction. I want to know how to be involved,” she said.
The panel discussion featured Chief Alex Coulter, Cape May Fire Department; Joe Faldetta, director of prevention, Cape Assist; Tom Piratzky, executive director, Cape Regional Foundation; Leach; and Vicki Clark, president and CEO of Cape May County Chamber of Commerce.
Coulter talked about the risk to emergency responders when answering an overdose call.
“Our responders wear fentanyl-resistant gloves and masks to protect ourselves from danger,” he explained.
Cape May County relies on the tourism and hospitality industry, which seems hard hit by the opioid epidemic.
“Business owners want and need healthy employees," Clark explained. "Addiction can affect them or a member of their family, which in turn affects the employee."
Faldetta recognized the number of culinary and hospitality students in the audience and confirmed the industry as a high-risk occupation.
“What we want to do is teach them coping skills and how to deal with stress without using drugs or alcohol,” Faldetta said.
Angelo Valente, director, Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, said the town hall is a way for the community to communicate.
“When we communicate, we break down the stigma of this disease. We share solutions and areas where we need to make improvements. This is a disease, not a moral failing. Conversation is very important to finding solutions,” Valente said.
New Jersey’s Knock Out Opioid Abuse initiative is a two-year program focusing on addressing the opioid epidemic through community outreach, prescriber education, parent education, and a statewide campaign to increase awareness of the crisis.
To contact Carl Price, email email@example.com.