NJHRC: Gov. Murphy’s Opioid Announcement Shows Urgency of Harm Reduction Expansion

Earlier today, Governor Murphy announced 3,040 overdose deaths in 2020 and, strikingly, 540 deaths in January-February of 2021, along with his opioid policy proposals for 2021. The proposed policies make critical commitments to increasing the state budget for harm reduction programs by $1 million, expanding naloxone (brand name Narcan) access, and bolstering availability of medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD).. In response to the opioid policy address, New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition (NJHRC) releases the following statement.

Jenna Mellor, Executive Director, New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition: 

“The overdose death numbers announced today are a stark reminder that New Jersey needs expanded harm reduction services more than ever, as we continue to face an overdose crisis on top of the public health crisis caused by COVID-19. 

This should come as no surprise for those who closely follow this issue. For decades, New Jersey has ignored and underfunded the expansion of harm reduction services, which are the only proven way to prevent overdose deaths. Today, Governor Murphy was probably the first sitting New Jersey governor to say ‘harm reduction’ in a policy address.  Right now, New Jersey only has seven harm reduction centers. This does not come close to meeting the needs of our communities. 

The proposals outlined by Governor Murphy show the state’s commitment to fighting overdose deaths, but we need to keep centering harm reduction and people who use drugs at every step.  In the absence of state action, it’s been up to community leaders and mutual aid groups to fill in gaps in the state’s overdose prevention policies. Since March 2020, New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition and community partners distributed 6,000 naloxone kits, preventing at least 45 overdose deaths likely many more since we know most reversals are not reported. The state should learn from this example and properly fund programs that get lifesaving supplies directly to people who use drugs without any stigma and with no strings attached. The number one priority right now should be keeping people alive.

Lawmakers have the opportunity, and moral urgency, to make this happen by supporting legislation championed by Senator Vitale and Assemblywoman Huttle that would lift onerous restrictions on harm reduction expansion and make lifesaving services and supplies available in every corner of New Jersey. The number one priority right now should be keeping people alive.”

Caitlin O’Neill, Director of Harm Reduction Services, New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition:

“It is absolutely heartbreaking that we continue to lose people we love daily to preventable fatal overdoses in New Jersey. Without lifesaving harm reduction and community naloxone distribution supported at a state level, every overdose death is a policy failure.  We know the policies and practices that save lives: community naloxone distribution, Harm Reduction, and pragmatic overdose prevention education. Yet evidence-based Harm Reduction approaches continue to be left behind by New Jersey policymakers. 

People who use drugs in New Jersey are facing compounded public health emergencies right now, and it’s time to step out of the mindset of abstinence-based or punitive approaches, and invest in proven public health strategies like Harm Reduction. Not every person who uses drugs is ready for, interested in, or even in need of recovery, but every person deserves a chance to stay alive through whatever choices they make.”

Harm reduction by the numbers: 

  • 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 over 150.

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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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