Ramona Giannini of Ventnor displays the sympathy throw depicting her son Jeffrey, who died of a heroin overdose on June 1.

VENTNOR – They wore purple as a symbol of remembrance. More than 100 “remembers” attended the third annual South Jersey Overdose Awareness and Remembrance event held in the sandy park behind the Ventnor City library Friday night. The last day of August is International Overdose Awareness Day, a global event to raise awareness about addiction and help reduce the stigma surrounding drug-related deaths.

“This is an event no one wants to be invited to,” said Ted Khoury of Linwood, who’s been in recovery for 16 years. He said he hoped those who are publicly mourning would hear messages of hope and find some “peace and serenity” before the night was through.

Parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts were there – some holding photographs of their loved ones – to share their loss and shed the stigma surrounding opioid abuse. Public officials offered hope for solutions with programs and legislation that tackle the opiate epidemic, and two sparsely attended Narcan education programs were held earlier in the day.

Ramona Giannini of Ventnor hung on the gazebo a sympathy throw depicting her handsome 30-year-old son on the Ventnor beach. She said her son had his issues with addiction, but the family was open about it. Jeffrey Giannini died of a heroin overdose on June 1, but his life should not be defined by his addiction, she said.

“It can happen in any family,” she said.

Giannini said toxicology reports are pending, but the person she believes sold him the heroin has been arrested.

“It’s in the hands of the Prosecutor’s Office,” she said.

It is likely fentanyl mixed with heroin caused him to die instantly, she said.

Recovery Force founder Bob Catalano lost his brother to addiction.

“He was not a scumbag. He was a good person with a disease,” he said. “We need to raise our voices and not be ashamed that we love someone who is an addict.”

Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler.

Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler, who started the Hope One Atlantic County mobile recovery unit to bring recovery resources to the streets, said the unit rolled out on Aug. 1 and has already put 11 people into treatment programs. On the first day, a man walked out of the woods in Mays Landing to ask for help, he said.

“But the person I love most, I can’t get help for,” said Scheffler, whose daughter remains unreachable.

Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo said he has come to understand the disease and has hired people in recovery at his produce business in Northfield.

He said it took three years to pass legislation mandating the overdose reversal drug Narcan in all New Jersey high schools.

Although Narcan is being used more than ever, the death toll is still rising.

“Some legislators don’t see the urgency here,” he said.

A bill currently before the Legislature states that anyone prescribed opiates who does not use them will be required by law to responsibly dispose of them at a local pharmacy, Mazzeo said.

Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo.

New Jersey Senator Jeff Van Drew said the opiate epidemic is far reaching and in the cities and suburbs.

“It is everywhere,” he said calling for more funding for Narcan, detox centers and addiction treatment.

“It is a huge challenge, but if we stick together and use our brains and love each other and care about the people involved, we can win this thing,” he said.

Addiction is a disease of loss, Atlantic and Cape May County Recovery Court Judge Mark Sandson said. Loss of a driver’s license, loss of a job, family and finally, of dignity and freedom, he said.

After a years-long analysis of the epidemic, science has found that “we cannot keep drugs out of the country,” “we cannot incarcerate ourselves out of the problem,” and finally, “treatment works and recovery is forever,” he said.

The recovery court he oversees mandates a two-and-a-half-year plan for addicts involved in the judicial system that begins with treatment.

It costs $12,000 for the program, which is funded by the court system, but $64,000 to house an inmate in state prison, he said.

New Jersey Sen. Jeff Van Drew.

Earlier in the day, Atlantic County Narcan Coordinator Charlie Kerley distributed “Just in Case” Narcan kits to anyone who asked. The county has kits in all AEDs installed in county office buildings and had kits in all high schools two years before the law was passed, he said.

Overdose deaths have tripled in the last few years as a result of fentanyl being mixed with heroin or other opiates. Atlantic County is fourth in the state for drug overdoses and third in fentanyl deaths, he said.

“An amount of five crystals of salt will equal a fentanyl overdose. For Carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer, it will be two grains of salt. Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than heroin,” he said.

Kerley said law enforcement has developed a notification system to give a heads-up to emergency room staff and police that a rash of overdoses might be coming their way. Fentanyl is so lethal, the notification system is designed to prevent the accidental overdose of emergency personnel who respond to the call of an overdose, he said.

“If they are having them in Camden, in a day or so, we will have them here,” he said.

Based on intelligence reports from State Police, the number of overdose deaths will continue to increase until it peaks in five years, he said.

The epidemic is being perpetuated by profit for drug dealers, he said.

A kilogram of fentanyl, manufactured in China, can be purchased on the dark web for $3,000. A kilo of heroin is $55,000, with a street value of $1.5 million.

“Drug dealers are making millions in sales,” he said. “The general public has no idea how bad it is.”

He credited Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner for taking an aggressive stance prosecuting drug dealers and those responsible for drug-induced deaths.

“We have to take preventive measures, be aware, educate people about the disease of addiction and have a kit in your home,” he said. “It’s better to have a kit and never use it, than have a need for it and not have it. It’s a precaution, just like you have a smoke detector or a fire extinguisher.”

Kerley said Narcan is effective in reversing overdose from any opiate-based pain medication, and there is no adverse reaction if Narcan is administered and its not an opiate overdose.

“When in doubt, spray it out,” he said.

Recovery Force of Atlantic County sponsored the event. For more, see recoveryforce.org.


Nanette LoBiondo Galloway

Award winning journalist covering news, events and people of Atlantic County for more than 20 years.