Coalitions in Action – Safe Communities Coalition of Hunterdon County Releases “Fentanyl Factor” Documentary

“Safe Communities Coalition of Hunterdon County (HCSC), New Jersey serves a region of natural beauty and pleasant suburban living,” said the coalition’s Project Director Lesley Gabel. “Hunterdon County is located an hour west of New York City and an hour northeast of Philadelphia. The county is very diverse with farm land, small municipalities and towns covering 437 square miles in total and a population of 124,714 people. There are 26 municipalities within the region; these municipalities range from pockets of rural and sparsely populated to some larger thriving towns. This area is one of the major points of import in the U.S. for illegal drugs. While we have the lowest density outlet in the state for alcohol, youth have no problem obtaining alcohol as well as marijuana.”

“HCSC has a strong history of community development and collaborative ties to community sectors, helping us to form community relationships that reduce youth substance misuse,” said Gabel. “HCSC was originally formed in 2004 after a high school principal’s son was given alcohol at a party by another parent. A pivotal point occurred in 2009, when HCSC was awarded the Drug-Free Communities (DFC) grant. With additional financial and human resources assistance and CADCA training, we expanded sector representation and shifted gears to work on environmental strategies addressing all youth substance misuse, including opioids. Thru collaborative partnerships with key stakeholders, shared resources and focused environmental strategies, HCSC has been able to achieve critical, population-level, environmental changes that have significantly contributed to decreasing the incidence of youth substance misuse in our county. In 2011, HCSC was awarded the nationally recognized CADCA Dose of Prevention Award for outstanding coalition and community engagement with over the counter and prescription drug prevention. In 2013, HCSC was awarded CADCA’s “GOT Outcomes” Milestones Award, and in 2017 HCSC was named Coalition of the Year by CADCA based on data identifying a long-term decrease of 30-day use of both alcohol and marijuana in Hunterdon County youth.”  

“Unfortunately, New Jersey has been plagued by the opioid crisis,” said Gabel. “Most residents have high access to medical care in our community with households full of prescription drugs. Over the last two years 91,998 opioid prescriptions were dispensed in our county, with 8,257,454 across the entire state. On average, 41 Narcan deployments occur each day by law enforcement and EMS workers in N.J. Unfortunately, we have lost 6,139 N.J. residents between January 1st, 2018 – December 31st, 2019 to overdose deaths. Most overdose deaths are due to a combination of heroin and/or counterfeit prescription pills mixed with fentanyl. Forensic labs in the state are seeing significant increases in submissions of suspected heroin containing fentanyl or fentanyl analogs. According to the N.J. Drug Monitoring Initiative, from 2015 to 2019 there was an increase of 1,838% in fentanyl submissions. The coalition’s response to the opioid crisis has been the creation of documentaries that help to educate our widespread community with calls to action. Our films are located on our coalition website. In 2011 we created “In a Split Second” about alcohol and prescription pain pills, in 2013 we made “Pills to Heroin,” and our most recent 2019 release is called “Fentanyl Factor.” In “Fentanyl Factor,” family members share their heartbreaking loss due to fentanyl. It also includes interviews from local residents and law enforcement affected by the opioid epidemic and features an interview with a forensic scientist inside the lab where real and counterfeit drugs are tested. This film highlights the alarming increase of accidental overdose deaths due to the mixing of fentanyl with other substances such as heroin, cocaine, and counterfeit prescription pills.”

“Prior to rolling out the film, we showed the film to focus groups consisting of all different age groups,” said Gabel. “This provided lots of insight that required us to make edits prior to the roll out. On January 29th, with over 200 people in attendance, we held a town hall meeting to launch “Fentanyl Factor.” The town hall consisted of a brief presentation on fentanyl, a showing of the film and a panel discussion. On the panel was our N.J. State Senator Bateman, current and former prosecutors, family members from the film and a person in recovery. Having key decision makers attend, hearing from the audience and family members provided faces and voices to the severity of the problem.” 

“To date, the film has been viewed over 7,000 times,” said Gabel. “Our advice to other coalitions in creating documentaries is to engage key partnerships, to ensure you have a solid strategy in not just developing, but how to implement. For example, we have all our films as approved resources from the N.J. Department of Education, so they can be used in schools. It is also important to have measurable outcomes, other than number of views. For example, we track perception of harm before and after viewing the film to measure impact.” 

“Our Safe Communities Coalition continues to attend CADCA’s National Leadership Forum as well as the Mid-Year Training Institute,” said Gabel. “We have found it is an excellent time to share and learn from other coalitions about how they are addressing the issues we all face.”