Last year the Essex County Anti-Crime Council helped to raise awareness of the opiate epidemic gripping our region. As a result of the many lives destroyed and lost, and the families devastated by these poisons, the safety of all of us demanded nothing less.

Since then, with the unified efforts of law enforcement, through educational measures and community forums, and with an urgent call for more treatment beds, we have intensified our fight against this menacing problem.

In 2004, the Essex County Drug Task Force assigned to the District Attorney's Office, working with local, state and federal agencies, seized 60,629 bags and 447 grams of heroin. A year later, the Drug Task Force swept 78,326 bags and 8,558 grams of heroin off the streets of Essex County.

In 2004, the Drug Task Force seized 801 OxyContin pills. In 2005 that number rose to 13,130.

Couple those statistics with the 170 reported overdose deaths in 2003 and 2004, and those figures - those victims - are chilling reminders that our efforts to educate our children, prosecute drug dealers and traffickers, and secure treatment beds for those addicted to heroin and opiates are vital to the well being of us all.

In our efforts to help prevent children from taking the wrong path, the Essex District Attorney's Office is currently introducing its "Choose To Refuse" program to every school district in the county. The six-part program, which serves as an enhancement to curricula school districts may already have in place, helps children understand the deadly effects of heroin and OxyContin, and gives them the coping tools to resist the temptations of drugs.

At the Essex County Sheriff's Department, a 54-bed treatment facility was opened in January 2005 at the Correctional Alternative Center in Lawrence for minimum-security offenders who committed crimes as a result of their addictions to heroin and opiates. This re-entry center gives offenders who have undergone preliminary rehabilitative treatment the opportunity to live in dormitory-style rooms that adjoin larger common areas, where they meet with their counselors and individual caseworkers for piercing job development, life skills and drug and alcohol counseling sessions.

The curriculum used for these offenders revolves around therapeutic-based programming to treat and modify the behaviors of substance abusers in prison and work release centers. Participants are taught, in part, to understand the reasons for their addictions, while they also learn to confront their issues of denial. They are also schooled to recognize and disrupt their own critical thinking patterns and accept responsibility for their behavior. They must also implement relapse prevention plans, develop and use support networks when they feel they are on the verge of relapsing, and improve their ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.

But treating heroin and opiate abusers must not, and cannot, end once they have finished their jail terms. As part of the continuum of care for offenders who are released, the sheriff's department has unremittingly searched for additional treatment beds in sober houses for those who may need supplementary treatment and supervision.

Additionally, a 24-hour help line has been established for offenders who fear they are on the verge of relapse after their release and want help. An offender who wants assistance can call this number if they think they are about to use heroin and/or opiates. A caseworker answers the call and will direct the person to the closest agency they can turn to for help.

For those of us in law enforcement, we understand we cannot engage in the struggle against this epidemic by ourselves. It is why we are thankful when people like Congressman John Tierney help us secure a $200,000 grant from the federal government that will be used to help implement preventative efforts later this year and early in 2007.

It is why we stand as allies with parents as they have serious conversations with their children, trying to guide them down the right path. Please know we are here to help, parents, if you sense your children are in trouble.

And for those of you, who think trafficking heroin and opiates is a growth business, consider: We will continue to arrest and prosecute all of you until you no longer exist in the region.

There is no greater public health and public safety issue in Essex County today. We will never stop sounding the alarm in this ongoing crisis.