The State of Harm Reduction: NJHRC Calls on State to Get Naloxone Directly to People Who Use Drugs

Trenton, NJ (Tuesday, January 14, 2020) In response to the State of the State address, the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition (NJHRC) commends Governor Murphy for recognizing the urgency of ending overdose deaths and urges state lawmakers to expand New Jersey’s underutilized harm reduction programs. By investing broadly in people who use drugs as “first responders,” New Jersey can significantly reduce fatal overdoses.

Harm reduction is a set of policies and public health practices that promote the dignity and bodily autonomy of people who use drugs (PWUD), by making sure PWUD have access to life-enhancing supplies like safer injection equipment and naloxone to reverse an opioid overdose.

“Providing New Jerseyans who use drugs easier access to treatment is a good start, but New Jersey must also expand access to fentanyl test strips, naloxone, safer using supplies, and overdose prevention education,” said Caitlin O’Neill, founding member of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “These are the gold standard tools to end overdose deaths, and this is a critical time for New Jersey to expand access to them.”

In 2019, 3,021 New Jerseyans lost their lives to an opioid overdose, a slight decrease from 2018 that public health experts describe as a plateau. 

“Expecting every substance user to achieve abstinence is unrealistic and deadly. We need to meet PWUD where they’re at, without judgments about their substance use,” O’Neill added. “Shame and stigma push PWUD into dark corners, behind closed doors, and we die alone trying to hide our drug use. Harm reduction reminds people who use drugs that we are human beings who deserve dignity and respect. We are people who want to take care of our friends and community, and we can do so if we are equipped with access to life-saving tools.”                                                                                                        

New Jersey can learn from other states that are embracing harm reduction. In Massachusetts, 19 communities distributed naloxone directly to PWUD and found that, as the result of such programs, PWUD became responsible for 90% of overdose reversals. Kentucky is home to 70 harm reduction programs that offer syringe access and naloxone to Kentuckians who use drugs. If New Jersey had the same per capita number of harm reduction programs, we would have 140. New Jersey currently has seven. 

“In 2020, New Jersey should take a transformative harm reduction approach to preventing overdose deaths. We should expand the state’s harm reduction initiatives and get resources directly to people who use drugs, who are the experts in their own lives and needs,” said Jenna Mellor, founding member of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition.

“Just like we’re making sure police officers and librarians have naloxone, we need to make sure that New Jersey’s first of the first responders, people who use drugs, are getting all of the naloxone they need and want,” Mellor continued. “New Jersey can be a leader in implementing evidence-based, dignified alternatives to the War on Drugs. And by listening to and valuing the leadership of PWUD, New Jersey can not only reduce fatal overdoses today but help prevent the next public health crisis before it kills thousands of our neighbors and loved ones.”

Nearly 17,000 New Jerseyans have died of an opioid-related overdose since 2012. New Jersey’s recent Hepatitis A outbreak (500 cases reported from December 2018-October 2019, up from 64 cases in that same time period the year before) further underlines the importance of harm reduction services, as people who use drugs and/or are experiencing homelessness have increased vulnerability to Hepatitis A infection.  

New Jersey’s seven Harm Reduction Centers are located in Atlantic, Monmouth, Camden, Hudson, Essex, Passaic, and Mercer Counties.  Of New Jersey’s 21 counties, 14 do not have a Harm Reduction Center. Harm Reduction Centers—first legalized in 2006 and expanded under the Murphy Administration—offer syringe access, fentanyl test strips, HIV and Hepatitis C testing, connections to community resources, and a safe, nonjudgmental space for people who use drugs. 

  • Of the ten counties with the highest death rates from opioid-related overdose in 2019, six do not have a harm reduction program: Salem, Cumberland, Cape May, Gloucester, Burlington, and Ocean Counties.
  • Of the ten counties with the highest total numbers of people who died of an opioid-related overdose in 2019, four do not have a harm reduction program: Ocean (192 deaths), Middlesex (179 deaths), Burlington (150 deaths), and Bergen (144 deaths) Counties.*
  • Three of the existing seven harm reduction programs (Atlantic, Passaic, and Camden Counties) are limited in their location and ability to implement best practices due to municipal constraints.
  • Seven of the ten counties with the greatest number of Hepatitis A cases do not have Harm Reduction Centers: Gloucester (61 cases), Burlington (35 cases), Morris (27 cases), Salem (22 cases), Bergen (21 cases), Cumberland (18 cases), and Ocean (14 cases) Counties.

*Data Source: NJDOH Opioid Data Dashboard and U.S. Census 2010. Calculated using January-November 2019 data (December data not available).

Harm reduction initiatives are critical for the nine out of ten PWUD who, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, are not interested in treatment at any given time, along with those who want treatment but are not able to access it.

In 2016, New Jersey estimated that 37,533 New Jerseyans wanted treatment but could not access it. Harm reduction also helps prevent fatal overdoses among New Jerseyans who are leaving incarceration or a treatment program, when risk of dying from an overdose is especially high.

# # # 

About the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition 

The New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition is a group of advocates and organizers advancing harm reduction and equitable drug policy reform in New Jersey.

We are people who use drugs, who are in recovery, and who are harmed by the War on Drugs and overdose deaths. We are family members, neighbors, and community leaders united in our commitment to the philosophy and practice of harm reduction.

We provide Harm Reduction 101 and Overdose Prevention training, along with direct outreach and distribution of overdose prevention supplies to New Jersey residents most likely to witness or experience an overdose, prioritizing people who use drugs and those facing poverty, unstable housing, and other barriers to accessing the seven existing Harm Reduction Centers. To request overdose prevention supplies, people who use drugs can call or text 1-877-4NARCAN.

Donate Now

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.

Naloxone Hands