Police throughout Ocean and Monmouth Counties soon will be armed with a drug that can save heroin users from fatal overdose, launching a program officials hope will be adopted statewide in New Jersey.
All 32 Ocean County police departments are participating in a pilot program backed by Gov. Christie, who said Wednesday that equipping police with the drug, Narcan, would help save lives.
Proclaiming that "the war on drugs has failed," Christie, a former prosecutor, promoted the program during an event in Brick.
"The only way to solve this problem, or even put a dent into it, is through treatment," Christie said, according to remarks circulated by his office. "Treatment is impossible for someone who's died."
The Republican governor, who also has required drug courts for nonviolent offenders, signed a law last year that expanded access to Narcan and shielded non-health-care professionals from liability while administering the drug in emergencies.
The drug, which police will administer as a nasal spray, can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose, though patients still need to be taken to a hospital for treatment.
Providing the drug quickly is critical: "Every second counts when they're not breathing," said Roseanne Scotti, state director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance.
Paramedics in the state have been carrying Narcan, in some cases for decades.
But police and emergency medical technicians - often the first on the scene of an overdose - have only recently been cleared to use it, according to state officials.
Despite the passage of last year's law, existing state regulations did not permit emergency medical technicians to administer Narcan - a loophole Christie closed last month by granting EMTs a waiver from the rules.
Police, meanwhile, needed training, said Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office.
The law said prescriptions "would be provided to individuals who had gone through the training," Loriquet said. "It had to be standardized training. That's what we were monitoring closely."
Working with Kenneth Lavelle, an emergency room doctor at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office developed a training program modeled after one in Massachusetts.
The program has a doctor train one member of a police department, who then becomes the trainer for his or her department. Once officers are trained, doctors can give them the drug to dispense.
Administering Narcan is simple - "two squirts in each nostril," said Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato.
Overdose deaths in the county jumped from 53 in 2012 to 112 in 2013, Coronato said. This year, of 20 overdose deaths, 17 were directly related to heroin, he said.
Equipping police with Narcan "is a no-brainer," Coronato said, noting that liability concerns were addressed by last year's law.
County criminal forfeiture funds will cover the first round of kits - which cost $50 apiece, according to Christie's office - for Ocean and Monmouth officers.
Officials expect the program to expand quickly. Coronato will give a presentation to the county prosecutors' association next week. He said Ocean County would post information on its website for other departments.
Glenn Miller, chief of detectives for the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, said he had been in touch with "probably every prosecutor's office in the state" and a dozen police departments.
Among the interested departments is Camden County, where last month, Camden City had 15 heroin overdoses in one day after police said a bad batch of the drug hit the streets.
"The moment we get the approval" to administer Narcan, said Police Chief Scott Thomson, "the next day it'll be in the trunks of all our squad cars."