NJ officials fighting opioid crisis 1 truck stop at a time

In this Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, photo, weigh

In this Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, photo, weigh master, Glenn Riley, signals a truck driver as fellow weigh master, Barbara Garland looks on, while they weigh and screen trucks passing through the Greenwich truck weigh station on Interstate 78, in Greenwich Township, N.J. One of the first lines of defense against New Jersey's opioid epidemic is the highway truck weigh station. (AP Photo/Mel Evans) (Credit: AP)

GREENWICH TOWNSHIP - One of the first lines of defense against New Jersey's opioid drug epidemic is a highway truck weigh station among the green hills of the state's rural northwest.

Trucks pulling into New Jersey from Pennsylvania on Interstate 78, or preparing to leave, stop there for a quick size and weight check. But problems with drivers' log books or suspicions from police can lead to deeper inspections. That led to drug busts last year at the Greenwich Township stop that took more than 100 kilograms of heroin out of drug distribution networks.

While only a fraction of the more than 2,000 truck stops done by the state police's mobile safe freight unit each year turn up drugs, law enforcement say it's a key part of cutting into the supply side of the state's drug epidemic that claimed more than 1,500 lives in 2015.

The unit seized 160 kilograms of heroin last year, more than six times as the previous four years combined, according to state police data. The unit also confiscated 27 kilograms of cocaine and 1,054 pounds of pot. Police estimate the drugs' total value at more than $21 million.

"This is the supply side of the distribution chain and it's very important that we act as a deterrent for what comes into this state in the illicit drug trade," Col. Rick Fuentes, the head of the state police, said while standing in a huge barn used for the standard truck inspection. "We're talking about the integrity of the trucking industry here and rooting out those individuals that are using the trucking industry to engage in the illicit narcotics trade."

The Drug Enforcement Administration notes the role that the country's interstate highway system plays in getting drugs from Mexico to urban centers. The trucks stopped on I-78 are often headed to drug houses in New York to be repacked for sale on the street and the truckers return with cash, police say.

State Trooper James Agens was responsible for two of the busts at the Greenwich Township weigh station last year, earning him the agency's trooper of the year award.

During the second stop, Agens said he became suspicious when the driver had two cellphones on him, including one that wouldn't stop ringing. After seeing log book discrepancies, Agens and a partner found four boxes in his truck that didn't match.

Inside were 64 kilograms of powdered heroin and another 10 kilograms of cocaine, investigators said.

"It's just mind boggling that there would be that much narcotics going over our roadways every day," Agens said. "I am sure for every one that we get there are probably 20 plus that go by us."

Republican Gov. Chris Christie has drawn plaudits for his work addressing the opioid crisis, including increased resources for treatment, but some have questioned whether the state has done enough to help poor communities and stop drugs going into New Jersey.

"The day we stop the supply of drugs coming into our community, that's the day we turn it around," said Democratic Assemblyman Jerry Green. "The same price we want to pay to get someone cleaned up, I want us to pay that same price to get drugs out of our community because it's destroying lives."

For New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino, the work by state police is one of the answers for those critics.

"When you look at an operation like this, you say it's really searching for a needle in a haystack, but because it's connected to the rest of our operations, there's intelligence that flows through this stop as well," he said. "The truckers need to know that we're inspecting with the most aggressive means possible. And we're making a lot of stops and a lot of arrests."

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Contact Cornfield at https://www.twitter.com/JoshCornfield

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