By Donald Wittkowski
Joseph Landis, who grew up in the notorious drug-infested Kensington section of Philadelphia, makes no attempt to hide his father’s troubled past.
“My dad is a heroin addict, but is clean now,” he said.
Last year, he attended the funerals of two cousins who died of drugs. Other members of his family have battled addiction, he noted.
Landis is a lieutenant with the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office. While it might seem that a senior law enforcement official such as Landis would prefer a tough “lock ’em up” approach toward drug addicts, he actually favors a much different philosophy – he wants to help them.
“That junkie is somebody’s kid, somebody’s mom, aunt or uncle,” he said, putting a human face on addicts instead of demonizing them.
Landis and Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland spent 90 minutes Saturday telling an audience of local residents about a series of county programs that are intended to prevent drug abuse, and, if it happens, how addicts can get help rather than simply being thrown in jail.
“It’s just as important preventing it as it is arresting people,” Sutherland said during a Fourth Ward community meeting at the Ocean City Free Public Library.
Landis oversees the community outreach program in the prosecutor’s office and serves as a representative to the county Drug Court, also known as Recovery Court.
After speaking at Saturday’s meeting, Landis gave audience members a tour of the prosecutor’s Hope One van, a vehicle that allows a team of professionals trained in mental health and drug treatment to get out into the community to help addicts.
“We want to get to the people before they’re picked up by the criminal justice system,” Sutherland said.
Using forfeiture money seized from drug dealers who were arrested by the prosecutor’s office, Sutherland spent $50,000 to convert the van into a specially equipped, mobile facility offering access to drug prevention and treatment services.
“The goal of Hope One is to provide the community with information, resources, and immediate access to services and treatment facilities to get back on the road to recovery,” the prosecutor’s office says in literature about the van.
Ray and Cindy Endres, a married couple who live in Paramus, N.J., and bought a vacation home in Ocean City last year, were impressed with the van while taking the tour. They also sat in for the community meeting with Landis and Sutherland, coming away with what they said was a better understanding of the opioid crisis in Cape May County.
“It’s a shame this program wasn’t available 20 years ago,” Ray Endres said.
Altogether, about 30 local residents attended the community meeting. Ocean City Councilmen Keith Hartzell, Antwan McClellan and Michael DeVlieger also were on hand for Landis and Sutherland’s remarks.
Since becoming county prosecutor in December 2017, Sutherland has made the opioid epidemic a major focus of his office. He emphasized that the county has been making strides with its education and prevention programs for drug abusers. Simply putting them in jail as punishment should be the last resort, he said.
“It’s really important to attack this on all fronts,” Sutherland said.
In 2017, there were 206 drug overdoses and 33 drug deaths in Cape May County. The overdose antidote, Narcan, was used to save 98 drug victims in 2017.
Through Dec. 21, 2018, there were 175 overdoses and 26 drug deaths for the year countywide. Narcan was used 114 times to save lives in 2018, according to statistics provided by Landis.
Both Landis and Sutherland said the decline in the number of overdoses and drug deaths from 2017 to 2018 suggests that the county’s drug programs are working. They also credited the partnership the prosecutor’s office has established with Cape May County-based drug prevention and treatment organizations, such as Cape Assist and Cape Counseling.
“I think the education part is huge, and being proactive on the street,” Landis said.
Of the 206 overdose victims in 2017, just one was under 18 years old, Landis revealed. He believes that is an unmistakable sign that the prosecutor’s community outreach program in the local schools is having an impact.
“It shows me that the kids are listening,” he said.
Landis explained that when he speaks in the schools, he stresses a particularly harsh warning to students: “Opioids are going to kill you. Heroin is going to kill you,” he said.
Sutherland and Landis also pointed to the Drug Court as another progressive way that Cape May County has been addressing the opioid epidemic. The Drug Court program is a step-by-step process allowing addictions to get sober.
After they graduate from the Drug Court program, they can file to have their criminal records expunged and also seek help in getting jobs.
“It’s a process of getting them out of the cycle and back into society,” Sutherland said.
Cape May County has recently added a diversion program for military veterans who are battling drug abuse. Sutherland hopes to expand the program to help veterans who may also be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or economic hardship.
“I really think it’s going to be a successful program,” he said.
After outlining the county’s drug programs to the audience members, Sutherland told them that they, too, could help fight the opioid crisis simply by properly disposing of their expired or unwanted prescription medications. That way, the drugs will be kept out of the hands of addicts, he said.
Cape May County’s local police departments, including Ocean City, offer medicine drop boxes where residents can quickly and anonymously dispose of any unwanted prescription drugs.