Sharp increase in opioid arrests started in 2013
An opioid epidemic is sweeping the nation, and the number of arrests and overdoses has risen dramatically across the United States, including here in New Jersey. In January, Gov. Christie declared opioid drug abuse a public health crisis.
The numbers are staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin use more than doubled among young adults ages 18–25 in the past decade; more than nine in 10 people who used heroin also used at least one other drug; and 45 percent of people who used heroin were also addicted to prescription opioid painkillers.
Unfortunately, this is happening right here in Berlin, and the number of narcotics arrests in the borough has spiked at an alarming rate. Four years ago was an eye-opening year for the police department, as 119 narcotics arrests were made in 2013 — more than the previous four years combined. The number has climbed steadily each year, increasing to 143 in 2016. As of March 7, there have already been 22 narcotics arrests, and the police department doesn’t see the number dropping anytime soon.
“It’s almost like a traffic ticket, it’s that common,” Det. Michael Scheer said.
When Sgt. TJ Varano joined the police department in 2010, he said he was shocked if he saw one bag of heroin. The boxes of evidence have been quickly filling up in their evidence room, going from one box with a few years of evidence, to more than a few boxes for each year from 2013 on.
“Now, it’s common to see 50, 60, even 70 bags of heroin coming in,” he said. “It’s completely out of control.”
According to the police department, all types of people are doing drugs.
“It doesn’t discriminate,” Scheer said. “We’ve had multiple females and males in their 50s, 20-year-olds; white or black. It doesn’t matter.”
That includes people who may have had a good upbringing with a loving family.
“The common misconception is if someone is doing these drugs, they had a bad upbringing,” Varano said. “In some cases, it’s true; others it is the total opposite. You’re looking at nice, upper class, wealthy families with a mom and dad squared away, living in good homes. They are the opposite of what their parents instilled in them. There are those I’d say in their late 20s and early 30s who grew up in this town, and some of our more senior officers watched them grow up and they were great kids. Now that they are older and grown up and we’re bringing them in for offenses, sometimes you’re looking at them thinking, where did it all go wrong?”
“A lot of individuals we talk to who are addicted, they say it only takes one time,” Det. Jason Christy said. “They don’t have a reason how it all happened, but it just catches on so quick.”
Not just heroin
Others have reasons for how and why it happened, and for some, it didn’t start with heroin. For them, it began shortly after getting injured playing sports, not knowing it would lead to something dangerous.
“The majority of the kids and adults we have, a lot of them said it started from some type of injury, whether it was a car accident or football injury; they were injured in sports, and they started taking Percocet and Oxycotin for that pain,” Scheer said. “However, that becomes too expensive. It can get up to $25 a pill, so when you can’t afford that $25 pill anymore, your body can get that want, that drive, that need to get that feeling. It’s a lot cheaper to get a bag of heroin for $10, and it does the same thing.”
Users are also finding different ways to take the drugs and make them, including from making a form of marijuana into wax oil, selling them in wrappers and smoking out of a vaporizer.
“Parents would look at these in the house and probably think it looks like a piece of gum or candy wrappers,” Varano said.
Varano called heroin dealing “a business” to drug dealers. Some mark their bags of drugs with a stamp or logo — the police department has seen the New Era logo and even LeBron James. It’s their way of branding their drug, and he said it’s a constant battle trying to keep up with the dealers’ latest trends.
“People treat it as their business,” he said. “It evolves into something else where they change what they’re doing, and it’s a whole branding thing. Some people put them in pink bags, others blue bags, and they put a stamp on it to identify it. Just as soon as we find that we can narrow the stamp to a couple individuals, they change the stamp. Every time we think we have something figured out, it totally flips. There’s always this constant evolution of how can we keep up with the newest and latest trends?”
“When you talk to addicts and when they hear about others overdosing and using a certain stamp, it’s like a candy or a treasure for them,” Scheer said. “They are hunting it and trying to find it because it means it’s good stuff.”
Going to extremes
Scheer said some people do whatever it takes to get their hands on drugs.
“Some people, when they start, they live at home for a little while and steal from their parents here and there,” he said. “The parents had enough, so they’ll kick them out. Maybe they’ll come back, but eventually, they’ll do whatever they need to — climbing through a window or breaking a door in.”
Others will go to extreme lengths to satisfy their addiction, sometimes putting people’s lives, including strangers, in danger.
“We had one instance where a woman was leaving an ATM at Wawa; two men pulled up, saw her and followed her home,” he said. “She goes into her driveway, and they put a knife up to her throat and took all her money. They pulled into Wawa and waited for someone to go to the ATM and follow her all the way home. It all stemmed from drug addiction.”
Varano said drugs are linked to the majority of other crimes in the area.
“With the rise in drug use, you see a rise in burglaries, thefts and the DUIs because now people are driving under the influence of these drugs,” he said. “It all seems to stem back to the drugs. Most of the crimes we see that involve narcotic users are thefts, burglaries and robberies.”
‘They told me not to go through Berlin’
The rising number of arrests in Berlin is getting back to the drug dealing community, and dealers communicate with each other to not go through Berlin because either they or someone they know got caught.
“We’ve had search warrants where people would say, ‘man, they told me not to go through Berlin,” Scheer said. “They told me not to go down the pike.”
“A lot of people we’re arresting aren’t necessarily (Berlin) residents,” Christy said. “There are a lot of major roads that run through the town, like the White Horse Pike, Cross Keys Road and Route 73, and if they are trying to get to Camden, Philadelphia or Atlantic City, they have to use those roads.”
Scheer, Varano and Christy all agreed it’s disheartening to see this many people hitting rock bottom, and when they bring them into the police department, they can’t help but ask themselves if they will see them again.
“They hit such a low that there’s no getting out of it sometimes,” he said. “We look at these people and we’re hoping when they leave here, they get help. Are we going to see that person in two weeks? It’s a shame because behind every heroin seizure, that’s somebody’s life,” he said. “They are a father, mother, son, daughter; you can’t lose sight they are human beings.”