Finding New Ways to Combat NJ’s Opioid Crisis

Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. More than 700,000 Americans die of drug overdoses each year, and everyday more than eight people die alone in New Jersey. That to say, that, often times, overdose deaths occur in the shadows, where many victims die alone. In New Jersey and around the country, families and communities are being devastated by this crisis. Something more must be done.

The Murphy administration has done its part in committing to fighting the opioid epidemic. New Jersey has improved its Medicaid regulations to make opioid treatment more accessible for Medicaid recipients and the state continues to invest in treatments and programs to help those struggling with addiction. Meantime, in partnership with pharmacies across the state, the Department of Human Services will be providing naloxone, also referred to as narcan -- the opioid overdose reversal drug -- for free at participating pharmacies. This is an incredible initiative that will help save lives – but it is not enough.

In the face of a national emergency, we may have to respond with unconventional policies. Desperate for solutions, my legislation (A4638) authorizing overdose prevention centers in New Jersey may be the answer. Overdose prevention centers, also commonly referred to as safe injection sites, are legally sanctioned facilities that allow people to consume pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of trained staff. These centers are statistically proven to curtail overdose deaths and increase participation in drug treatment programs.

Overdose prevention centers are the compassionate approach to addiction. At these sites, trained staffs are available to provide clean needles, administer overdose reversal medication, naloxone (narcan), and offer treatment options for long-term care. Under this legislation, New Jersey would authorize the state health commissioner to establish a one-year pilot program and application process to permit a municipality or county to operate a overdose prevention center. The commissioner would establish four overdose prevention centers located in Northern, Central and Southern New Jersey. Each center will be staffed by a health care professional, manager, employee, or volunteer as necessary.  

Currently, there are approximately 120 supervised drug consumption sites operating in 12 countries around the world, including Australia, Canada, Denmark and Germany. Studies of these programs depict the positive outcomes of safe injection sites, including increased use of drug treatment, improved public safety, reduction in HIV and hepatitis C risk, and increased use of medical and social services.

Presently, there are projects pending in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, New York City and other municipalities across the country. It is my hope that New Jersey will be the first state to authorize these sites.

I realize this concept may be viewed as radical, but it is data driven and statistics show that it works. Vancouver opened the first supervised site in North America in 2003. With the introduction of this site, Vancouver saw a 35 percent reduction in overdose deaths in the immediate vicinity, as compared to 9 percent reduction in the rest of the city. In fact, despite the thousands of patients using drugs at supervised sites around the world, there have been zero overdose deaths recorded.

Some people share concern regarding public safety risks, others cry “not in my backyard”. The fact is, the opioid epidemic is widespread. Opioid deaths are found amongst all geographic locations, socioeconomic classes, ages, races, and religions -- drugs and people who use drugs are in your backyard either way. Today, we are all hard-pressed to find someone close to us who hasn’t in some way been impacted by opioid addiction.

On the other hand, when we provide substance users a clean, safe place for them to use, we can save lives. The stigma associated with drug use alone can send those afflicted into the shadows, by legalizing overdose prevention centers we can get them off the street and into safe environments.

People suffering from drug addiction will only seek recovery when they are ready and unfortunately, many will not get that chance if they die of an overdose. We know all too well that the “war on drugs” did not curtail drug use. New Jersey must view drug addiction for what it is, a disease – those affected should not be punished. We need more resources, not penalties.

Overdose prevention sites aren’t the only answer to combatting this crisis, but they can be part of a wider answer in combatting this epidemic.  In this moment, we are faced with a choice: either people suffering from drug addiction can continue to die in the shadows or we can implement new and innovative policies to give them a fighting chance. I choose the latter.  

Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, represents the 37th Legislative District in the New Jersey State Assembly.