A program designed to combat New Jersey’s ongoing opioid abuse epidemic is being expanded.

Operation Helping Hand calls for peer recovery specialists working with community healthcare groups to be dispatched to police departments after lower-level drug suspects are arrested and booked, to speak with the individuals and urge them to get into treatment.

According to Sharon Joyce, the director of the Office of the New Jersey Coordinator for Addition Responses and Enforcement Strategies, if a drug suspect agrees to go into a detox and recovery program, the charges against the suspect are not dropped — however the judge in the case will be advised of the circumstances, and can take them into consideration when rendering a sentence.

“The design of this program envisions that there’s actually a law enforcement element to it and a peer recovery element to it,” Joyce said. “It’s really an opportunity for that individual to take strides to start down a path to recovery.”

She said thanks to $1 million in funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Operation Helping Hand, which is currently operational in five New Jersey counties, will be expanded to Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Morris, Salem, Sussex, Union, and Warren counties, and 2 additional counties are expected to join the list shortly.

She said each county will receive about $58,000 for their own Operation Helping Hand program, and they do have flexibility when it comes to how the program will be designed.

“It may be that the law enforcement folks in that county know where people in need may be congregating and they may go out and do outreach.”

She said while Operation Helping Hand seeks to help those addicted to drugs “it’s a public safety initiative as well — I mean if one can break the cycle of addiction, you may be thwarting future crimes.”

Joyce noted the program is designed to target drug users when they’re facing possible incarceration because “this is perceived to be one of the junctures at which a person may be in the situation where they will see the advantage now of undertaking treatment and recovery.”

She stressed to begin to turn the tide against the opioid abuse epidemic, “it’s better for the community at large to actually address the underlying addiction and deal with it

Operation Helping Hand was originally developed in Bergen County in 2016 under the direction of then-acting Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal, currently the New Jersey Attorney General.

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