Copper Thefts are Fuelling New Jersey’s Opiod Crisis
Copper thefts are fuelling New Jersey’s opioid crisis.
Tens of millions of dollars worth of metals ripped from cellphone towers, power stations and even graveyards are being fenced at secondhand shops and scrap yards by drug addicts looking to pay for their next fix, a state watchdog agency has found.
The State Commission of Investigation said the rampant theft leads to breakdowns in cell service and electrical power, as well as higher costs for taxpayers and consumers to replace wiring, manhole covers and other metal stolen from communities and businesses.
The illicit trade in stolen metals is a major driver of New Jersey’s opioid crisis, the commission said in a report, noting that more than a third of overdose victims in two counties showed up in databases of people who had sold materials to second-hand stores, pawnshops and scrap metal yards.
Many owners and employees of the businesses actively encourage addicts to steal and sell metal, the commission said.”The enormous costs of the illicit bargain between thieves and unscrupulous owners are borne by all New Jerseyans: the ratepayers who see higher bills for cell service and electricity; the consumers who pay more for goods at retail stores; the taxpayers ultimately responsible for replacing infrastructure that has vanished in the night,” the report said. “By providing an easy route for drug addicts and opportunists to cash in on stolen metal and merchandise, these enterprises have helped spawn an endless cycle of theft, one that law enforcement cannot keep pace with, much less end, without a muscular response from the state.”
The commission, a 50-year-old taxpayer-funded investigative body that advises policymakers, recommended stronger state oversight of scrap yards and second-hand retailers. It noted that even in communities that regulate the second-hand stores, many police aren’t aware of the authority these regulations give them.
The commission recommended that the New Jersey State Police license scrap yards and second-hand stores and require criminal background checks for owners and employees. The report also suggested that the state require more documentation from sellers of metals and prohibit dealers from accepting metal marked as the property of telecommunications companies, utilities and local governments.
New Jersey has one of the nation’s worst opioid abuse problems. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1,409 New Jerseyans died from overdoses of heroin and prescription painkillers in 2016, a rate of 16 deaths per 100,000 people, which exceeds the national rate of 13.3 deaths per 100,000.
Many stores and scrap yards abet the crisis by encouraging people to steal high-value copper wiring, batteries and other metal from cellphone towers, construction sites and utility stations, the Commission of Investigation found. New Jersey ranked second in the nation for insurance claims stemming from metal thefts, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.The State Commission of Investigation zeroed in on a scrap yard in Somerset County where some drug addicts showed up with allegedly stolen metal as often as five times a day; one in Camden County where a woman allegedly fenced $1,567 worth of copper wire labelled as belonging to Public Service Electric & Gas; and another in Camden County where a self-described heroin addict regularly sold copper wiring stripped from cell towers.
The commission also found what it called “pervasive rot” in second-hand stores, such as one in Gloucester County whose owner allegedly encouraged addicts to bring in pricey Dyson vacuum cleaners, many of them stolen from a local Target store.
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