Public health & civil rights leaders condemn Senate passage of fentanyl penalty upgrade bill (S-3325)

Earlier today, the New Jersey State Senate approved a bill upgrading fentanyl penalties (S-3325) by a vote of 32-0. This week, the Star-Ledger editorial board also opposed the bill, calling it “a return to the failed drug war.” Lawmakers previously received an open letter from 40+ public health, harm reduction, civil rights organizations warning that this proposal will increase overdose deaths and fuel racial injustice. In response to today’s Senate passage of S-3325, policy experts issued the following statements:  

Jenna Mellor, Executive Director, New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition 

“Lawmakers can say that this bill will not harm people struggling with their drug use, but the bill language says otherwise. The proposal is so broad sweeping that, if we were talking about alcohol, someone carrying a six-pack could be arrested and charged as if they operated a brewery. The bill not only doubles down on punishments that we know are ineffective, but it’s based on assumptions that are out of step with the realities of the drug supply and experiences of people who use drugs.

“The impulse to lock more people up is an understandable emotional response to the overdose crisis, but this proposal will only lead to more preventable deaths.”

Ami Kachalia, Campaign Strategist, ACLU of New Jersey 

“Today’s vote by the New Jersey Senate to advance fentanyl penalty upgrades (S3325) is a step in the wrong direction for New Jersey. Overwhelming data make clear that drug penalties increase overdose deaths, mass incarceration, and the continued targeting of Black and Latinx communities already subject to overpolicing and harsher sentencing.

“At a time when we should be embracing evidence-based public health responses to drug use and sale that help New Jerseyans, New Jersey lawmakers are sticking to failed policies that have only resulted in public health and safety harms to communities around the state.”

Racquel Romans-Henry, Director of Policy at Salvation and Social Justice 

“Yesterday, lawmakers joined communities across the state to commemorate Juneteenth, the day that Black people were seemingly freed from the bondage of slavery in this country. 24 hours later, lawmakers return to the statehouse to pass more drug war policies that will undoubtedly place more Black bodies in shackles. The shameful irony does not escape us.

“Every lawmaker has said that New Jersey cannot arrest our way out of the overdose crisis, yet the insistence to do just that persists. This is an affront to sound public policy and it is an affront to racial justice. We need to be doubling down on policies of restoration, healing, and investment in Black communities, not the deadly, misguided and ineffective drug war.”

Marleina Ubel, Policy Analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective 

“The deep irony is that some lawmakers believe as gospel that locking up more people will save lives, when we have decades of evidence that this doesn’t work.

“More people will die as the result of policies like this that fail to recognize drug use as an issue of public health. This is objectively bad policy that will do active harm, increasing overdose deaths and multiplying the racial injustices fueled by the War on Drugs.”

Deric Miller, Member, Not One More NJ (made up of New Jersey Organizing Project & Seachange Recovery Community Organization) 

“It makes sense to want to punish something that does us harm, but this bill isn’t punishing fentanyl or the overdose crisis — it punishes people who are struggling. By lowering drug thresholds and increasing penalties, it will be more difficult for law enforcement to distinguish between someone’s personal supply and the ‘kingpins’ lawmakers say they want to target. Bills like these are weapons used to scare people into pleading guilty to other crimes and will put folks who are struggling behind bars.

“Instead of more punishment, lawmakers should embrace smart, evidence-based approaches that save lives and give our loved ones the chance to heal and recover.”

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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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