Montclair Det. Sgt. Charles Cunningham, left, and Acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert Laurino were among the panelists at a discussion on opioid addiction Thursday night at the Montclair Women’s Club, which sponsored the event. LINDA MOSS/STAFF


Montclair Police Det. Sgt. Charles Cunningham described the pain of losing a loved one to drug abuse, and several others had tragic tales to tell on Thursday night, too.

During an “Opioid Crisis” panel discussion, Cunningham described in detail being out working in his yard on Nov. 8, 2005, Election Day, and getting a phone call that his brother-in-law had been found dead of a drug overdose in central New Jersey.

“This hit home, because this was my wife’s youngest brother, not just one of her brothers, her youngest brother, and here I am, I had to make the notification in person to my wife,” Cunningham told an audience of more than 50 people at the Montclair Women’s Club.

“These in-person notifications are a must in sensitive issues like this,” he said. “So I traveled to my wife’s employment in Paterson, N.J., where she’s a nurse. I had to tell her in person — and to this day, without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life. As I say, I’ve kind of got some skin in the game with this crisis.”

Cunningham was one of eight panelists at the event held by the club, where law enforcement officials and drug-treatment experts talked about the scourge that rising addiction to opioids, synthetic pain killers, had brought to the nation, New Jersey and Essex County.

The newest killer is carfentanil, a drug used to tranquilize large animals such as elephants, that is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and has been dubbed “gray death,” said Acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert Laurino. A dose the size of a grain of salt can be fatal, according to Laurino.

“We’re living in an opioid epidemic that is causing chaos in all our communities,” said Alton Robinson, who moderated the panel and is with the Center for Addiction Recovery Education and Success in Rockaway.

In addition to Cunningham and Laurino, the panel included Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson and Capt. Gary Nash, supervising Officer for the Essex County Sheriff’s Department narcotics bureau.

The panel offered a crash course on how opioids such as oxycodone and its much stronger and cheaper cousin, fentanyl — originally created to treat end-stage cancer patients — are now abused by people from all walks of life.

A number of factors have led to the rise of opioid use, including doctors too quickly prescribing the drugs for pain and writing prescriptions for it for long periods of time, weeks. Leftover pills can lead to addiction to those they were first prescribed for or end up being stolen by others for illegal use.

Panelist Kate Garrity, a Parsippany native, tearily described her youngest son Patrick’s descent and fatal overdose in 2016 from fentanyl and Xanax. He was 25.

And Kristine De Jesus, psychologist/coordinator of the Alcohol and Drug Program for Montclair State University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, talked about the bad news she had just received earlier in the day.

“I got a call this afternoon that one of the PTA moms actually died of an overdose today,” De Jesus said, her voice choking with emotion. “It’s [opioid addiction] not one demographic. It’s literally everyone.”

Kristine De Jesus, coordinator of the drug and alcohol program at Montclair State University, was told about “a PTA mom” in Rahway dying of a drug overdose on Thursday. LINDA MOSS/STAFF

Robinson, who described himself as in long-term recovery, and Laurino both said it is difficult for law enforcement officials to deal with drug addiction and the explosive growth of opioid use.

“This issue is really not so much a law-enforcement issue but a public-health crisis,” Laurino said. “We’ve kind of been thrown into it.”

Cunningham said coming out of the experience with his brother-in-law, the approach he takes to dealing with addicts, and the ones accused of crimes, is respect and compassion. Addiction is disease of the brain, he said.

“We don’t judge,” he said. “I feel they believe me when I tell them that.”

His wife’s family had owned two pharmacies, where her brother worked and has access to the prescription drugs that would lead to his death, Cunningham said.

Laurino explained some opioid abusers graduate to become heroin users because it is relatively inexpensive in comparison. While a pill of OxyContin, a brand name oxycodone, can cost $20 to $25 each, and an addict takes more than one a day, a dose of heroin is only $5, according to Laurino.

And to top it off, the Garden’s State’s heroin is prime quality.

“New Jersey has the dubious distinction of having the cheapest and the purest heroin in the country,” Laurino said.

So much so that Nash said that he has encountered residents of West Virginia who come to Newark every two weeks to pick up their heroin. And the heroin available today is so pure it can be consumed by snorting or even smoking it rather than injecting it by needle, according to Nash.

“Without the stigma of the needle the customer base for today’s heroin has  become younger, more suburban and more rural,” he said.

In Montclair from April 2016 to May 2017 Narcan, the drug used to treat narcotic overdoses in an emergency situation, was administered 38 times, according to Cunningham.

Montclair’s schools have Narcan kits, with all counselors and nurses trained how to use them, he said. He suggested those who have someone with an addiction living with them get such a kit for their homes.

Part of the problem with opioids is there availability in homes, kept in medicine cabinets and then taken and used by someone who the drug wasn’t prescribed for, several of the panelists said. The Montclair Police Department has a drop box at its headquarters where anyone can leave such drugs, no questions asked, Cunningham said.

Jackson said he was at the session in order to learn about opioid addiction.

“I don’t have all the answers,” the mayor said. “I do believe this is a crisis of monumental if not Biblical proportion for our community and for our country, and that we do need to apply resources to address the problem.”

The Township Council is “willing, able, eager to provide resources” to Montclair’s schools and law enforcement, as well as nonprofits, to fight the epidemic.

“We are committed to doing that,” Jackson said. “We simply need for you to tell us where those dollars should go … There’s no magic wand, there’s no panacea, but we can put some resources behind it.”

Jaimie is an award-winning journalist and editor.