Updated: Oct 30
By Deion Johnson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
More than 2,100 people have died of suspected drug overdoses in New Jersey so far this year, according to the state health department. On Wednesday, a panel of public health experts pushed the state to do more to help them.
During the all-day symposium at The College of New Jersey, public health experts, panelists and advocates discussed New Jersey’s drug problem, focusing on drug decriminalization, ways to incorporate more harm reduction programs like clean syringe distribution and medications in addiction treatment, and using alternative strategies that others have implemented successfully.
“We are here to discuss the drug crisis plaguing Black communities,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer of the nonprofit Salvation and Social Justice group in Trenton. He said the problem dates back to the 80s.
“Hopefully, this symposium will shed light on ways to fix it,” he said.
So far this year, there were 2,151 drug-related deaths, according to the New Jersey Department of Health, down from this time last year. The department recorded 2,892 drug-related deaths for all of 2022 and 3,124 for 2021.
According to the ACLU New Jersey, in New Jersey, Black people are 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for a drug violation than white people, despite similar rates of use.
The ACLU reported that New Jersey has the nation’s worst racial disparities in its prisons, incarcerating Black residents at a rate 12.5 times higher than white residents - policies that disproportionately target Black communities only exacerbate the disparities.
During the symposium, over 200 participants explored ways to secure more support from politicians in addressing the drug crisis and obtain assistance for workers in the trenches daily. They also discussed concerns about the availability of resources in communities of color.
“It’s challenging to change the hearts and minds of legislators,” said Marleina Ubel, a panelist from the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonprofit Think Tank. “People need to show up and demand to be heard by these powers that be.”
Others compared New Jersey’s approach to the drug crisis with those used in other parts of the world.
Nuno Capaz of the Portuguese Ministry of Health’s Dissuasion Commission, which focuses on decriminalization laws, said Portugal’s approach is working.
Portugal has implemented decriminalization strategies such as providing counseling, treatment options and help finding jobs for people with an addiction.
“We quickly realized that criminalizing those suffering with substance abuse was not the answer,” he said. “It’s like driving without a seatbelt. You’re not allowed to do it in Portugal but don’t incline to drastic criminal sanctions.”
Currently, there are eight harm reduction centers across the Garden State. Two are in Paterson, including a mobile one run by the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation. The others are in Asbury, Atlantic City, Camden, Newark, Jersey City and Trenton.
“I didn’t understand how serious this issue is,” said Kanji Jones-Tulloch, a member of the Mercer County Board of Social Services. “Training and conferences like this give me a new perspective on my clients and doing what they do safely.”
Students in attendance focused on the educational aspect of the symposium.
“Education is the first step in introducing people to this problem,” said Angelina Ruiz, a social work major at Seton Hall. “Not everyone is aware that decriminalizing drugs is a thing. So again, education and awareness are key to making a difference.”
Madison Huntley, a senior at Seton Hall, agreed.
“There is a lot of stigma around the word decriminalization as it pertains to drugs,” she said. “Not all these people are in these situations by choice. And I think the panelists are shedding light on the many reasons people do these things.”
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