Harm Reduction Advocates, Medical Experts, and Parents Applaud Introduction of Harm Reduction Expansion Bill

March 9, 2021— Far-reaching harm reduction expansion legislation advanced through the Senate Health Committee earlier today. The bill package, sponsored by Senator Joe Vitale and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, would reduce overdose deaths, prevent infectious disease, and connect people who use drugs to non-judgmental support. 

The bills were applauded by advocates from New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, Hyacinth Foundation, Garden State Equality, Salvation and Social Justice, Families for Sensible Drug Policy, Visiting Nurse Association of Central Jersey, Camden Area Health Education Coalition, and South Jersey AIDS Alliance. 

“New Jersey desperately needs expanded harm reduction services,”said Caitlin O’Neill, Director of Harm Reduction Services at New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “During the pandemic, we saw a rise in fatal overdoses in NJ, and we’ve already lost over 540 people to overdose in 2021. We get requests for overdose prevention and safer use supplies from every corner of the state, even places where services appear accessible on paper. New Jersey residents who use drugs need realistic access to harm reduction supplies and services. The bill package introduced today by Senator Vitale will lift political limitations to expanding those lifesaving services.” 

The harm reduction bill package would a create a statewide standing order for naloxone (brand name Narcan), the medicine that reverses an overdose (S3491/A4847); lift the onerous municipal ordinance requirement that limits harm reduction services (S3009/A4847); decriminalize syringes and expunge previous convictions (S3493/A5458); make HIV prophylaxis medication available at pharmacies without a prescription (S1039/A687); and allow harm reduction programs to offer mail-based services (S3065/A4901)

“The harm reduction bill package helps close critical gaps to care for people who use drugs, which is an urgent issue of racial, economic, and social justice,” said Wesley McWhite, Policy Director at Hyacinth Foundation. “With the right policies in place, New Jersey can take great strides to preventing overdose deaths and new HIV infections, which are disproportionately harming Black and Latinx communities.”

Here are some findings about harm reduction, which is a proven public health best practice and a movement led by and for people who use drugs, people who recently stopped using drugs, people in recovery, and their loved ones: 

  • Harm reduction services are only available in 1.2 percent of New Jersey’s municipalities and one of three New Jersey counties
  • People who have access to harm reduction programs are less likely to die from a fatal overdose, five times more likely to start a drug treatment program, three times more likely to stop chaotic drug use all together, and 50 percent less likely to acquire HIV and Hepatitis C than people without access.
  • Nine out of ten people who use drugs, and potentially at risk of overdose, are not interested in drug treatment any given time. Harm reduction services “meet people where they are at” with tools and support to stay alive and set self-determined goals about quality-of-life and wellbeing. 
  • New Jersey has seven harm reduction programs. If New Jersey had the same per capita harm reduction programs as Massachusetts, we would have 40 programs; if we had the same per capita as Kentucky, we would have 108.

“I am thrilled that these bills have cleared the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens committee. Expansion of life-saving harm reduction services, a proven public health measure, has been necessary for a very long time. We need to ensure that every life is valued, including those who are living with addiction. The passage of these bills will go a very long way towards providing help to many and is critical in our goal of ending HIV in New Jersey,”   said Kathy O’Brien, Executive Director at Hyacinth Foundation 

“I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone’s life saved with naloxone, the medicine that reverses an opioid overdose,” said Aakash Shah, emergency room physician and board member of New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “To truly turn the tide on New Jersey’s overdose crisis, we need naloxone and harm reduction supplies like new syringes available for every resident in every corner of the state. As a physician, I am fighting for harm reduction expansion because all of my patients, and all of my neighbors, deserve the basic resources to stay alive and thrive.”

New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition promotes harm reduction by distributing naloxone, fentanyl test steps, and other harm reduction supplies through peer-led programs; advocates for syringe access expansion and equitable drug policy reform; and organizes to build power among people directly harmed by overdose and the War on Drugs. To request naloxone (brand name Narcan) and safer use supplies, mailed for free and confidentially throughout New Jersey, call/text 1-877-4NARCAN or visit www.nextdistro.org/newjersey.

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Harm reduction is essential. A harm reduction approach to drug use is the best strategy we have to end the overdose crisis, reduce risks associated with drug use, and affirm the dignity and bodily autonomy of every New Jerseyan.

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