State moves forward on measures to prevent opioid overdose deaths

Drug overdose deaths have risen in New Jersey every year since 2014. Six counties in South Jersey—Camden, Atlantic, Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland and Cape May—have overdose rates (per capita) more than double the national average. Last year, 3,081 New Jerseyans died of an overdose.

Opioids, in particular, were involved in over 90% of overdose deaths statewide in 2018, the last year drug-specific data was available from the National Institutes of Health. Further data pinpoints heroin and fentanyl as the most common causes of drug overdoses within the opioid category.

It’s an ongoing crisis and one, unlike other issues, that has obvious avenues for correction—early intervention, more stringent prescription guidelines, needle exchange programs, increased Narcan availability, better access to mental health and recovery care, and more.

This week, Gov. Phil Murphy signed several bills that could help bring some of those solutions closer to reach. The bills, in part, remove barriers to expanding access to supplies and services that would help those at risk of overdose. 

One bill frees up a greater number of harm reduction centers to initiate or grow syringe exchange programs. Long stigmatized (by folks who think it’ll only encourage drug use), such exchange programs 1) keep harmful used materials off the street, 2) help those addicted reduce their risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis or other diseases, and 3) offer a point of contact with trained professionals to offer health and recovery services.

Another bill also creates local overdose death review teams that can provide data into how drug overdoses happen and identify how they can be prevented in the future. A third bill expunges prior convictions of possession or distribution of hypodermic needles, and repeals the criminal offense of possession of syringes.

The bills all are born out of the idea of harm reduction; that drugs will be used regardless of their legal status, so intervention with trained professionals and access to clean materials represents a net gain.

“The principles of harm reduction are simple. We must accept that there is drug use in our communities. Some ways of using drugs are more dangerous than other ways. We need to meet people where they are, rather than forcing on them some preconceived notion of what their life should look like,” says Sen. Joe Vitale, a sponsor of two of the three bills. “The signing of these bills into law will help us reinforce the truth that harm reduction policies are successful because they help us to meet people who use drugs where they are, without judgment.”

Adds Sen. Vin Gopal, a sponsor of the bill expanding syringe exchange programs, “In order to more effectively confront drug use in our state, we have to wake up to the fact that harm reduction policies are effective, humane ways to begin to better tackle the problem of substance abuse and to minimize the spread of disease. These bills are a good and practical step in that direction. Clean syringes, for example, have shown to be widely effective in preventing the spread of HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne pathogens.”

Advocacy groups and health agencies heralded the signing of the bills as a necessary, overdue step to protect New Jerseyans, both users and other community members. 

“This legislation is a game-changer for people who use drugs and people at-risk of a fatal overdose. Harm reduction is the best tool we have to end the overdose crisis, and this legislation will make sure residents in every corner of New Jersey have access to this lifesaving care,” says Jenna Mellor, executive director of New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition.

And in South Jersey, with its high concentration of drug overdose deaths, aid groups particularly noted the importance of the increased support.

“South Jersey AIDS Alliance applauds Governor Murphy’s bold act in protecting and expanding syringe access in New Jersey. This legislation secures health services for some of the state of New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents, from Atlantic County to Sussex County, who are all too often overlooked by policymakers,” says Carol Harney, CEO of South Jersey AIDS Alliance. “By expanding syringe access and protecting health services for people living with a substance use disorder and who are living with or at-risk of HIV, New Jersey lawmakers are saving lives.”