Salvatore Marchese completed treatment for heroin addiction, but his success was shortlived: An overdose left him dead in a car in Camden.
The 2010 death of the 26-year-old Blackwood resident was part of a growing epidemic of heroin use and abuse of prescription pain killers in the suburbs, according to experts who met Tuesday.
Members of a task force created by the governor held the last of several public hearings to study the problem and potential reforms. The concerns they heard included denials from insurance companies to pay for drug rehabilitation, and too few facilities to treat drug addiction.
Those who find the fastest road to rehab are those arrested and court-ordered into therapy, leaving few spaces, about 20 percent, for noncriminal addicts, said one official.
The governor's group met Tuesday at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, an urban center surrounded by suburban communities that the experts said are seeing an epidemic growing at an alarming rate, particularly among young white men, such as Marchese.
In 2010, Marchese's was among 884 drug deaths across the state. Last year, there were 1,000, said Roger A. Mitchell Jr., an assistant state medical examiner.
Mitchell used bar graphs, charts, and maps of the state to show that drug deaths - particularly those involving heroin, prescription pain killers, and antianxiety drugs - have spread beyond urban centers.
Marchese's mother, Patty DiRenzo, testified that her son had been turned away from treatment programs because of long waiting lists and because facilities are not required to accept heroin addicts. In contrast, she said, by law alcoholism must be treated.
(New Jersey recently expanded access to drug treatment for one category of addicts: In July, Gov. Christie signed into law a measure creating a pilot drug-court program in which low-level, nonviolent offenders with drug addiction would get mandatory drug treatment instead of incarceration.)
DiRenzo remembers trying to get her son treatment at a local hospital.
"I left there crying and I had to take him to Camden because he needed something," she said.
Her son eventually did receive treatment after saying he also abused alcohol. He stayed clean with Suboxone, a prescription medication to treat opiate addiction. He then relapsed.
DiRenzo said her son began experimenting with marijuana and alcohol at 14. By 20, he had lost his job after testing positive for opiates. After treatment, he completed technical classes, and worked on repairing heating and air-conditioning systems. He took care of his girlfriend and their baby, she said.
But when he relapsed, he lost his job, his girlfriend moved out, and he moved back home, DiRenzo said. Then came the fatal dose.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Mitchell testified as he noted that his statistics represented only deaths and did not account for injuries.
The panel included former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who now works at a treatment facility; John L. Hulick, executive director of the Governor's Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse; and legal and medical experts.
Donovan Allieri, 20, of Boonton in Morris County, said he lost a four-year full sports scholarship to Villanova University because of addiction.
Allieri said his addiction started with painkillers for a sports injury. Allieri said he dismissed warnings about addictions because he thought he had it "under control."
When the prescriptions ran out, he said, he found heroin.
"It took a near-death experience to know the game was over," Allieri said as he told the task force that he spent three months in the hospital and was for a while paralyzed from the waist down.
He now walks with a limp. He said he has been drug-free for eight months, but had been trying to recover for three years.
"I'm healthy today," Allieri said. "By the grace of God, I'm walking today."