PARSIPPANY-TROY HILLS, NJ (Morris County) – Families who lost loved-ones due to overdoses joined Morris County and state officials along with community organizations Tuesday in Parsippany to observe the 20th anniversary of International Overdose Awareness Day.
The annual event observed worldwide to focus on the lives lost to drug deaths was recognized in a ceremony on the lawn of the Morris County Addiction Center off Central Avenue, in Parsippany, where Morris County planted a weeping cherry tree last year to mark its first inaugural recognition of the event.
“We are survivors. We can all begin this wonderful journey of recovery together as addicts, as families and as a community. In the process, we grow stronger in love, stronger in strength, faith, hope. We can recover. We do recover. We exist,” said Marisol Cruz Stahlberger of Morristown, who spoke at the gathering about a son, older brother and younger sister she lost to addiction.
Overdose deaths spiked when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and have remained elevated, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH).
More than 94,134 deaths have been reported nationwide for 2020, and the CDC estimates that number will settle at over 95,000 when all data is in. It is the largest one-year increase in overdose deaths since 1999 and a record high, according to the CDC.
“We continue to recognize the losses incurred, the damage done and the fact we will never rid this nation of our growing addiction problem without openly acknowledging that we have a problem,” said Stephen H. Shaw, Director of the Morris County Board of County Commissioners.
“We have a problem even in our beautiful suburban enclave of Morris County. We have a problem, and we gather again today with our families, our neighbors, and our dedicated health-care providers, counselors and law enforcement members to commit ourselves again to face the insidious nature of addiction in our community,” Shaw said.
Shaw was joined at the ceremony by Deputy Director Deborah Smith, state Sen. Anthony M. Bucco, Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon and Morris County Prosecutor Robert J. Carroll. To the side of where they spoke, 60 empty chairs were placed on the lawn to symbolize the number of reported drug-related deaths in Morris County so far this year.
The NJDOH is reporting 1,626 drug-related deaths in the state as of the end of June, a trend that would make 2021 a record year to lives lost to addiction in New Jersey.
“This is a tough day of remembrance, but remember we must. Life will never be the same for those that are left behind, but the stories and the names are important for everyone to hear. For those that have been lucky enough to escape this disease, I hope today will be the day that you join us as we raise the voice of awareness,” Sen. Bucco said.
Bucco introduced the legislation signed last year to recognize every Aug. 31 as Overdose Awareness Day, and said yesterday the “crisis has evolved” with inexpensive, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl surpassing traditional drugs and resulting in poisoning deaths around the nation.
“It’s bitter sweet today to look out and see a lot of friends, but see a lot of people in pain,” Sheriff Gannon said.
Gannon and Morris Prosecutor said law enforcement cannot arrest and prosecute the nation out of the addiction problem, but can focus on criminals distributing the synthetic opioids that have become the leading cause of addiction and death. Law enforcement raids are netting more of the synthetic opioids than traditional heroin because the synthetics are 20 times less costly to process and more affordable to addicts.
They also are more deadly.
“Some of the numbers that have struck me, that makes this problem a high priority –from January 2014 through August 26, 2021, Morris County lost 492 persons to fatal overdoses. That’s almost 500 people that are not here to walk among us,” Prosecutor Carroll said. “In regards to statewide NJ, the current estimate is that we have been losing eight people each day to overdose. This is an American and New Jersey tragedy.”
Matthew Albanese of the Center for Addiction Recovery Education and Success (CARES) is a recovering addict who told the gathering that he lost an older brother, Mike, to an overdose and, afterward, a recovery coach who was trying to help him deal with his brother’s death.
“The numbers are too high. I can’t count anymore,” said Albanese, who is committed to helping others recover and works with Morris County’s Hope One mobile recovery access vehicle.
Other personal stories were shared by former Pompton Lakes resident Ruthann Gaspari, who lost her son to an overdose, and Tonia Ahern, who also lost a son. At the closing of the event, other people came forward with photographs of their loved ones lost to overdoses.
“We remember those who tried and did not make it. We pray for all of those still out there using today,” said Rabbi Inna Serebro-Litvak of Temple Shalom in Roxbury during an invocation. “God lead us and guide us in a way of healing and hope so that one day we will be free of this manmade plaque called overdose.”