Harm Reduction Advocates, Murphy Administration, & Mayor Baraka Launch National Memorial as Overdose Deaths Climb to an All-Time High

Today on International Overdose Awareness Day, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Department of Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman, and Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli joined Vital Strategies and advocates from Newark Community Street Team and the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition to unveil the first installation of a traveling national Overdose Memorial.
Located at Newark Public Library, the digital display commemorates lives lost to overdose, which reached an all-time high of 107,000 in 2021, and urges support for harm reduction services.
“The Overdose Memorial puts the human toll of the overdose crisis front and center,” said Dionna King, Technical Advisor for the Vital Strategies Overdose Prevention Program. “Each of the faces and stories of people we share was a tragic, preventable loss. The Memorial highlights that thousands of lives can be saved each year by supporting harm reduction, a practical, effective and humane solution to the overdose crisis. Harm reduction treats people who use drugs with care and dignity instead of pushing them into the shadows or punishing them.”
The public is invited to continue submitting stories in remembrance of their loved ones to the overdose memorial directly through the Support Harm Reduction the site or through Instagram. The memorial, launched by the global public health organization, Vital Strategies, with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, will travel to other states to engage others to address the overdose crisis.
“Any life lost to overdose is one too many, and this memorial is a poignant reminder of just how many people have lost a loved one to the ongoing overdose crisis here in New Jersey and around the country,” said New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy. “My Administration remains committed to pursuing equitable solutions that will help the individuals, families, and communities who have been directly impacted by this issue. We must – and will – continue to work alongside government, health care, and community partners to bolster and expand harm reduction services throughout our state in order to make a real difference in the lives of countless New Jerseyans.”
The memorial is part of a national “Support Harm Reduction” media campaign highlighting key interventions – such as safer use supplies, naloxone, medications for opioid use disorder, and drug checking resources like fentanyl test strips – that are proven to save lives, but remain difficult to access for most people in the United States.
“This national memorial, which makes its debut in Newark here today, highlights just some of the lives lost nationally to drug overdoses,” said New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “Their faces and the stories of their lives from families and friends offer life lessons to all of us who will view it across the country. Through their lives, we rededicate our commitment to working to end the overdose crisis.”
In New Jersey, overdose deaths have increased by 230% in the last decade, with 3,120 overdose deaths in 2021. Drug-related deaths among Hispanic/Latinx New Jerseyans are nearly four times higher than a decade ago, and for Black New Jerseyans, deaths have increased more than 250% over that same period.
“Today we gather to remember the lives of those lost to overdose and reaffirm our commitment to ending the devastating scourge of overdose and the pain it leaves behind,” said New Jersey Department of Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman. “I am honored to join Vital Strategies, the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, the Newark Community Street Team and Newark Public Library to mark the launch of this first memorial installation in honor of Overdose Awareness Day. Bringing attention to these stories helps inspire healing and hope, and raises awareness about the life-saving impact of harm reduction.”
“The overdose crisis has had a detrimental impact on so many lives that no one should have to endure, and we must end it so that families can heal and recover from the stronghold that drugs have on our communities,” said Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka. “On behalf of the residents of Newark, I thank Vital Strategies and Bloomberg Philanthropies for bringing awareness to this issue. We have to put critical safety nets in place especially given the current climate of uncertainty plaguing our lives, the effects of the COVID pandemic, inflation, social stresses and a myriad of injustices we face every single day. I hope this traveling memorial will help mobilize communities across the country to much needed action while also honoring those we have lost to this epidemic.”
“The overdose epidemic has caused so much heartbreak and devastation around our country, and the crisis is only growing worse. We have to come together and take action to save lives, and we know what works – including expanding access to medications and services that are based on data and evidence and treat people with compassion,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, Founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and WHO Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases and Injuries. “The Overdose Memorial is a powerful way to draw attention to the crisis and the steps we can take to address it with the urgency it requires – and prevent more needless suffering and loss.”
“Newark Community Street Team launched a new Overdose Response Team initiative this summer responding to overdose calls with University Hospital EMS to help save lives and reduce police interactions and arrests,” said Solomon Middleton-Williams, Newark Community Street Team. “While this is a step our outreach workers can take, we can and must do more. New Jersey should be prioritizing the health and safety of people who use drugs over punishment to bring people out of the shadows and encourage them to seek treatment and support. Punishment is not saving lives.”

“Overdose is the number one cause of unintentional and preventable deaths in the US, far exceeding deaths from motor vehicle accidents and gun violence combined. And the extreme rise in overdose deaths is being felt most dramatically by Black and Indigenous communities,” said Dr. Amesika N Nyaku, Trustee at New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “Harm reduction strategies, from syringe services to naloxone distribution to drug decriminalization, save lives and recognize the humanity of people. This is an emergency situation and calls for an emergency response by engaging people who use drugs with lifesaving resources and support.” 


The Newark overdose memorial is part of the “Support Harm Reduction” campaign, the largest-ever national advertising initiative promoting harm reduction, launched by public health organization Vital Strategies. The campaign was launched in February with a full page ad in the New York Times featuring 200 real people working in harm reduction, on the front lines of the overdose crisis. On the heels of the New York Times ad, three video ads featuring advocates whose own lives were saved by harm reduction, began airing in and around Washington, D.C. on a range of channels including: CNN, BET, ESPN, YouTube, Hulu and on various podcasts. The campaign has generated 44 million impressions to date. 

The campaign highlights key interventions for preventing overdose that many people in the United States still don’t have access to, for example: naloxone to reverse an overdose, drug checking resources, medications to treat opioid use disorder, and safer drug use supplies. The campaign features an interactive, online memorial to honor those who have lost their lives to drug overdose – more than one million people in the U.S in the past two decades.  


About Vital Strategies’ Overdose Prevention Program      

In November 2021, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a five-year, $120 million investment to help combat the overdose crisis in the hard-hit states of Kentucky, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Wisconsin and advocate for federal policies to expand treatment access and harm reduction with a goal of accelerating progress in reducing overdose deaths nationally.   

The partnership between Vital Strategies, Pew Charitable Trusts, Johns Hopkins University, CDC Foundation, and Global Health Advocacy Incubator is helping to strengthen and scale up evidence-based, data-driven policies and interventions to reduce overdose risks and save lives. The initiative builds on work of the past three years in Michigan and Pennsylvania, launched in 2018 with $50 million and expands the work to promote improved federal policies. 

Learn more at https://www.vitalstrategies.org/programs/overdose-prevention/

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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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