Two California truck drivers in court Friday for trafficking millions of dollars in drugs through New Jersey Interstate 78 are just part of how the state is cracking down on the growing drug epidemic.
“I don’t think the solution solely relies on law enforcement and arrests,” said Elie Honig, director of the state Division of Criminal Justice.
“It’s vital that we address rehabilitation and treatment needs on the demand side,” Honig said in an interview with BreakingAC. “It’s also vital that we step on the neck of the supply line.”
State Police did that in the arrests of Oscar Franco and Henry Cruz Ventura. The two men have admitted to separately trafficking at total of 100 kilograms of heroin in their trucks. Franco was sentenced to 10 years in prison Friday. Ventura pleaded guilty the same day and is awaiting sentencing.
“People need to know that we are making these cases,” Honig said. “We’re trying to raise awareness and we’re trying to deter this conduct.”
But the work needs to include all aspects of help.
“We in law enforcement are just part of what really needs to be a broader holistic approach to the problem,” he said.
Education is key, as is building intelligence on how these drugs are coming in and being distributed.
Even those in law enforcement need to be warned of the dangers.
For example, fentanyl — used to cut heroin — is known as a major contributing factor to overdoses. But it’s also dangerous for those merely handling it, Honig said.
Officers in the field are told not to handle anything that may be cut with fentanyl, he said. There was even a case where a lab technician suffered an overdose just by working with it, Attorney General Christopher Porrino recently testified.
“Yet people are ingesting this on the streets,” Honig said.
In fact, these so-called “bad batches” of heroin are often sought after by those using, hoping for a more potent dose.
“There is a line we need to walk in informing the public. Unfortunately, it can act as an advertisement, so to speak,” Honig said. “I tend to lean to the side of, let’s let people know what’s going on.”
The Criminal Justice director has been surprised at the huge scope of the drug epidemic, and of the source.
Doctors as ‘pill mills’
“I was surprised to see that doctors, at times, are at the root of the problem,” he said. “You see a doctor as a responsible authority figure, but some are functioning as pill mills, indiscriminately prescribing opiates.”
The Prescription Fraud Investigative Strike Team, or PFIST, was formed about four years ago.
It’s a team of detectives and attorneys in the Gangs and Organized Crime Bureau that targets corrupt healthcare professionals and “pill mills.”
“It’s a bad acronym with a great purpose,” Honig said.
Most recently doctors in Passaic and Union counties have been charged not only with illegally prescribing opiates, but with the deaths that they cause under the strict liability statute.
Dr. Byung Kang, 77, had a family practice in Little Falls, Passaic County. But the $1.4 million seized from him and his receptionist wife — including more than a half-million dollars in cash — was allegedly the proceeds of his drug deals. For six years, Kang would charge $150 to $200 to prescribe a 90-count of 30-mg. oxycodone pills to patients who had no medical need, according to the charges.
Among those patients whose addiction Kang allegedly fed for profit was Michael Justice, 26, of Clifton. Justice’s mother called Kang and threatened to call the police if he kept prescribing her son oxycodone with no medical need, the charges claim.
But, the prescriptions kept coming. Justice was found dead Dec. 16, 2014, along with empty bottles of oxycodone prescribed by Kang, one filled just five days earlier. He is now charged with first-degree strict liability for drug-induced death.
Dr. George Beecher faces that same charge.
In that case, one of the Union County doctor’s co-defendants is the father of the man he’s charged with fatally prescribing drugs. Jason Stoveken was regularly prescribed oxycodone and Xanax by Beecher, the charges claim.
He died July 27, 2013 of “acute combined toxicity” of oxycodone and Xanax.
“We allege that even after a young man died from narcotics that Dr. Beecher falsely prescribed, Beecher and the victim’s own father, defendant Andrew Stoveken, callously continued to profit by supplying tens of thousands of oxycodone pills to drug dealers,” Porrino said in announcing the arrests in August.
The work continues, Honig said, even as the epidemic seems to worsen at times.
But he is not deterred.
“I understand this is a long, difficult, complex effort and battle that we’re all engaged in,” Honig said. “We’re not going to see immediate results, but we’re fighting it every day. I do believe we’ll see progress over time.”