Morris County, state and federal officials joined families who lost loved-ones due to overdoses and several community organizations gathered to recognize International Overdose Awareness Day, an annual event observed to reduce the stigma of drug-addiction and the tragedy of drug-related deaths.
The occasion was marked with a freshly planted, weeping cherry tree, dubbed an “Angel Tree Memorial,” dedicated outside the Morris County Addiction Center off Central Avenue. State Senator Anthony Bucco (R-25) opened the dedication ceremony, joined by Freeholder Director Deborah Smith, Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon and U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11), along with many county human services officials, health care professionals, counselors and law enforcement personnel who assist people with addictions.
“Being present for the dedication of the first Angel Tree Memorial in Morris County gives this grieving mother hope. Honoring my beloved son and angel, Justin, along with all of the angels in Morris County lost to the drug epidemic — those of us who grieve them, and those who continue to fight for recovery — literally breathes life from that weeping cherry tree into a place where it is desperately needed,” said Rebecca Finnerty of Montville, who spoke at the ceremony about losing her son to a heroin overdose in 2016.
Others stories of overdoses were told by a dozen parents, each bearing large photos of the children they lost to drug addiction – including one woman who lost both a son and daughter.
“Today, we recognize not only the dilemma of addiction and drug overdoses in our society, but also the dedication we all share with health-care providers and law enforcement to stop the insidious nature of addiction in our community,” said Freeholder Director Smith. “The tree we dedicate today is a fitting tribute because it symbolizes life, growth and hope – the hope that our work will one day mean we will not need to gather here in the future to talk about addiction or the lives lost to it.”
The concern over overdose deaths is more poignant this year as recent data from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates drug-related deaths in the United States rose to record levels in 2019 and continue to climb. New Jersey ranks seventh among all 50 states with the highest per-capita rate of deaths due to drug overdose.
“We have lost far too many lives in communities across New Jersey and the country due to opioid abuse and drug overdose,” said Senator Bucco. “This day will serve as a humble reminder across our state of the work that needs to be done to protect innocent lives and raise awareness to the issue that impacts families of every creed. If we as a community come together to better understand, inform, and educate about the scourge of substance abuse and overdose, we can work to find better ways to help the most vulnerable among us and save lives.”
The senator introduced legislation approved by the state Senate and Assembly last week to establish every Aug. 31 as Overdose Awareness Day in New Jersey. The rise in annual addiction-related deaths has surpassed record annual highs for auto accidents and it is the leading cause for a reduction in the nation’s life expectancy, according to the CDC.
“Morris County is at the forefront of creating programs and partnerships that understand the complexities of drug addiction and how the disease ravages a person’s health, relationships and self-preservation instincts. As the Morris County Sheriff who has made fighting opioid abuse a priority, Overdose Awareness Day is a call-out to keep the stigma-free philosophy and use every resource possible to stop drug abuse and recreational dabbling that too often lead to preventable fatal overdoses,” Sheriff Gannon said.
First recognized in 2001, Overdose Awareness Day is observed throughout the world every Aug. 31. The freeholders established the date as an annual day of observance through a resolution adopted on July 8.
“Planting this weeping cherry tree is a simple, yet meaningful act by which we hope for a new beginning. We launch a new life hoping that those with addictions can overcome their disease and live on. We launch this new life hoping their families, too, avoid the burden of losing a loved one to addiction,” said Freeholder Kathy DeFillippo, the board’s Human Services liaison.
The CDC issued a preliminary report in July indicating nearly 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2019, marking a sharp increase over 2018, when the nation had been experiencing a decrease.
“On International Overdose Awareness Day we honor those lost. Every day that we advocate for those actively using and those with substance use disorders, we have those that we have lost on our heart,” said Kelly Labar, Peer Recovery Specialist at the Center for Addiction Recovery Education & Success.
NJ Cares, also known as the state Office of the New Jersey Coordinator for Addiction Responses and Enforcement Strategies, reported 1,595 suspected drug-related deaths in the state as of June 30. That puts the state on a pace to equal or exceed the 3,021 drug-related deaths the agency counted in 2019.
“The heroin and opioid epidemic continues to be a scourge on the residents of New Jersey. The Narcan program in Morris County is a critical component to our multidisciplinary approach in combating this epidemic. Other components include a strong focus on public education and Operation Helping Hand, a cooperative law enforcement initiative where substance use treatment is offered to those arrested for possessory drug offenses, for those determined to be eligible,” said Morris County Prosecutor Fredric M. Knapp. “The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office will continue to collaborate with our law enforcement and non-profit partners to save lives and connect those struggling with substance use to treatment resources immediately after overdoses are reversed.”
In Morris County, NJ Cares counted 89 drug-related deaths in 2018 and 86 for 2019. So far this year, 54 deaths have been registered in Morris County.
Morris County has been a leading force in combatting addiction, adopting a Stigma Free policy years ago while launching multiple programs to deal with the rising phenomenon of drug overdoses through the Morris County Department of Human Services, the Mental Health Association of Morris County, the Community Outreach and Planning Section in the Sheriff’s Office, Morris County Prevention is Key and their Center for Addiction Recovery Education and Success.
The Morris County Addiction Recovery Response Team and the Morris County Sheriff’s Hope One Mobile Response Unit were launched in 2017, with the ARRT offering peer-recovery support to overdose survivors in hospital emergency departments and follow-up counseling. The Hope One outreach program, which is a mobile recovery access center, travels throughout Morris County to provide critical support to people struggling with addiction to prevent overdoses and deaths.