DEA brings Newark community leaders together to fight opioid addiction

It was a plea from top drug enforcement officials.

“To our community members that are in the streets, that’s our grass roots here in Newark, we need your help,” said assistant special agent in charge for the DEA New Jersey division, Christopher Jakim.

They’re looking to break down silos to help groups fighting the opiate crisis as addictions continue to claim lives and tear through communities. A working group, convened by the DEA and the Milken Institute at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Newark headquarters, is hoping to create an action plan. It’s pulling leaders from uncommon backgrounds for a common goal.

“We’re going to look back every quarter and say, ‘OK, you said you were going to do this. Did you actually do it? You said you were going to change this outcome by this measure,’” said Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield chief medical officer and Vice President Thomas Graff.

Essex County leads the state in drug overdose deaths, according to the DEA. The overall numbers are startling. In 2017, there were 2,700 drug overdose fatalities in New Jersey — 333 of those came out of Essex County. 2018 is on track to surpass that. As of now, there have been 1,970 drug overdose deaths statewide, with 264 coming out of Essex County.

“This is something that we’ve been dealing with in our community since the late 60s,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “It’s nothing really new to us. The new part of it is that we’ve finally decided to collaborate and treat it like a public health issue.”

“There’s a lot of great ideas out there. There are a lot of great projects and efforts underway, but many of them can’t be funded because we just don’t have the money to do it,” said Dr. Luis Nelson, chair of the department of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

In response to the crisis, the DEA created the 360 Strategy — a collaborative community plan to reach people young and old in innovative ways before they start using.

Here’s what’s a little different about the forum: collaborators are clumped together in working groups, so you have things like “workplace” or “innovation and policy” pulling all their strengths together to find a solution.

“We hope these work streams will continue coming out of the meeting and will help pull it through so its more of an action-oriented meeting as opposed to just convening and collaborating,” said Edward Greissing, executive director of the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Center for Public Health at the Milken Institute.

Denisah Williamson runs one of the only peer-to-peer programs in Newark that helps children with emotional trauma so they don’t turn to substance abuse. She said the peer model is working for the youth in Newark because they’re not being judged by an adult.

“Sometimes you feel uncomfortable talking to an adult, or you don’t get it, you don’t understand. But when they hear it from their peers — I get it, I understand, I’ve experienced these kinds of things, I’ve made it through, so can you,” Williamson said, “So it makes them feel more relaxed knowing that there’s someone willing to walk that journey that looks exactly like them.”

But with new potent drugs hitting the streets daily, those answers can’t come soon enough.