Heroin abuse and addiction is not gradually becoming an epidemic in the Garden State. It is an epidemic right now, according to one state legislator who has introduced a bill that provides stricter penalties for heroin-related crimes.

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Assemblywoman Marlene Caride (D-Ridgefield) hopes New Jersey can begin to tackle the heroin problem by cutting the source off at the head and going after drug dealers.

"Heroin is so easy to get, and it's so cheap, that more and more kids are turning on to heroin," Caride said. "I'm tired of hearing about another student, another teenager or another young college student who overdoses on heroin."

The bill introduced by Caride would cut the threshold for a first-degree offense from five ounces (141 grams) to 2.5 ounces (70 grams). The assemblywoman pointed out that first-degree crimes typically mean prison time if the defendant is convicted.

"It's terrible. We're losing our youths and we have to do something to ensure that we stop this," Caride said. "Heroin abuse is not an just inner city problem. It is happening in our suburbs. It is happening in our rural areas."

Caride's legislation would also reduce the threshold for a second-degree offense from one-half ounce to .17 ounces (five grams), and make any amount less than that a third-degree offense. Opponents of the bill feel those struggling with heroin addiction should be in a treatment facility and not thrown behind bars.

"The purpose of the bill is not to ensnare or entangle the individual who is sick and has an addiction," Caride said. "The purpose of the bill is to get to the dealers."

The legislation has been referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. A public hearing has not yet been scheduled.