Sarah Gonzalez, Reporter, WNYC/NJPR
Sarah Gonzalez is the northern New Jersey enterprise reporter for WNYC and NJPR.
If you want to buy heroin in North Jersey you go to Paterson – a largely low-income city with high crime.
“Heroin is being sold right across the street and we’re only a block away from the county jail,” said resident Joe Rabatin, standing on a street corner on Broadway.
“They see a young white girl driving through and they know exactly what you’re there for if you’re driving in that area,” says Kristen, a 25 year old recovering heroin user. “You give somebody money and they hand it to you. It’s a matter of minutes,” Kristen said.
The city sees a steady flow of buyers coming through from suburban towns. Last week, police arrested more than 40 dealers and 280 customers, and seized close to 12,000 bags of heroin. For the second time now, prosecutors published driver’s license photos of all the customers.
The publishing of the photos is part of a larger effort in suburban Bergen County to address a surge in heroin use. But while suburban users are being offered long-term treatment options to avoid a criminal conviction, those arrested in Paterson do not have that option.
How the Heroin Sweep Worked
Undercover police officers from affluent areas went to Paterson and waited for nice cars to drive by – they called them “suburban cars.” They watched people from the suburbs buy heroin. They followed them back to the towns the live in and handcuffed them there. The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office posted photos with the each person’s name, age and city – and that was picked up by national news outlets. It was meant to send the message that the heroin problem is everywhere.
“I am literally the perfect example of that,” Kristen said. “I got a car when I was seventeen. I come from a good family. I lived in a nice home.” She checked herself in to a halfway house a few months before the Paterson heroin sweep.
“If I was out there right now, I would be one of those people because I went on a daily basis several times a day,” Kristen said. “I had a white Jeep Liberty, blasting my music. I had absolutely no fear at all.”
Kristen has a tattoo of the word “hope” on her left wrist. She has big green eyes, a short black bob and an awesome laugh. She started using prescription drugs like OxyContin and Roxicet as a teenager. She says one pill costs between $20 and $70 on the streets – depending on the strength.
With a habit that was costing $300, she discovered heroin, which got her high for $40 a day. And as an underage teen, it was easier to get in Paterson than alcohol.
Heroin has led to 20 overdose deaths in Passaic County so far this year, according to prosecutors. In the more affluent Bergen County, there have been 17 deaths. Both are on track to surpass last year’s numbers. But suburban parents are in denial, said Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli.
“We grew up with an idea of what heroin was,” Molinelli said. “Heroin was nasty, it was dirty, the person who took it was a junkie, and it happened in the inner cities between alleyways.”
That’s why he posted the photos of all the users. So parents could see that many of those arrested in the sweep were in their 20s and from the suburbs. Molinelli received calls from irate parents, who were eventually convinced that their children had been battling a heroin addiction on their own.
“That’s the type of case I’m pleased with,” Molinelli said. “A young man in the early stages of heroin, mom hasn’t picked it up yet, now she knows. Now she becomes engaged, now she becomes involved.”
Caught in the sweep was a baseball prospect for the Philadelphia Phillies, a dental hygienist, an injured veteran, and a dad who left his two-year-old home alone while he went out to buy the drug. People from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina were arrested. And the 100 arrestees who live in Bergen County are now getting a better shot at getting clean.
Treatment vs Criminal Convictions ... For Some
Currently, when someone is arrested for heroin possession, they’re convicted and usually get six months of probation. If they’re not arrested again during those six months, the case is dropped.
But Molinelli says that doesn’t treat the addiction. Starting with this sweep, heroin users in Bergen County will instead avoid a criminal conviction and be required to enroll in a drug treatment program for two or three years if they want to have their case dismissed.
“Someone is going to fail before they will recover,” Molinelli said. “And we can’t simply throw them back in court if they fail.” For example, Kristen spent 9 months in Spring House, a drug rehab program, and still relapsed. “We need the time to be able to work with them,” said Sue Debiak, manager of the halfway house. “We can’t just let them go in 30 days because they’re out using again.”
But the new treatment approach won’t be an option in Passaic County, home to Paterson, where 180 users were arrested. Users in the urban areas will still have a conviction.
“Now that it’s starting to affect people in the suburban areas, now they want to do something about it,” said Joe Rabatin, who lives in the neighborhood and is a recovering heroin user. “And I think that’s a disgrace.”