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Ventnor program looks to bring community action to drug epidemic fight

Doug Biagi began Ventnor’s DARE program decades ago.
But while Drug Abuse Resistance Education meant well — and the now-police chief was one of its biggest supporters — he admits it wasn’t enough.
He watched as his officers were called to overdoses of former students. He attended their funerals.
“You take it personally,” he said Saturday at Ventnor’s first Community Action meeting.
The event was the brainchild of Paula Maccagnano who wants to turn the growing awareness about drug addiction into community action.
The event brought together community leaders, activists, those in recovery and law enforcement to talk about the effects of drugs and what can be done.
It’s the first of what Maccagnano said will be quarterly meetings. The Ventnor native decided to start at home.
She filled the room with 100 balloons, the average number of overdoses in Atlantic County each month. Forty of them were black, representing those who have died in the county. The 60 who survive, she explained, just become part of the next month’s statistics unless they get help.
Deaths have increased as the drug fentanyl has also grown. Cheaper and more lethal than heroin, it often is mixed in with the drug.
Two years ago, fentanyl made up about 2 percent of the heroin on the street, said Sean Clancy, a retired Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office captain. Now, it’s 30 percent.
Prosecutor Damon Tyner now has three detectives assigned full time to the Drug-Related Death Unit that investigates all deaths from drugs, and looks to potentially charge those responsible.
There are currently two cases involving defendants charged under the strict liability statute, that finds those who provide drugs in fatal overdoses responsible for the deaths.
Ventnor police officers now carry Narcan to save those who overdose, they empty their medicine drop weekly as it fills with 20 to 30 pounds of prescription drugs a month, and they keep track of the town’s overdoses: 64 so far this year.
Education also continues.
Ted Khoury is part of the One Life initiative at Mainland Regional High School, which brings experts on prevention, addiction and recovery to the school.
Atlantic County sheriff candidate, Eric Scheffler, is a founding member.
He weighed in during the discussion about law enforcement taking a role in helping those on drugs rather than arresting them.
If elected sheriff, he said his office would immediately take a page from Seattle’s LEAD program, which stands for law-enforcement assisted diversion.
“We will have a program that will give you a choice,” he said, “you’ll either be arrested or you will go into a treatment program.”
Scheffler said that even if he doesn’t win the election, he will continue working toward programs like this.

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