I’ve always told anyone who’ll listen that if we regulated prescription opiates half as zealously as regulate cannabis, we could avoid a whole lot of heroin-relatecd anguish. But they never listen.
And so here were are.
We’ve got heroin users, whose habit takes root in a doctors office, they’re all dying in record numbers. Meanwhile, sick people in New Jersey pay way too much to navigate an over-regulated bureaucracy to legally access the one thing that actually works: medical marijuana.
It’s ironic. But it’s not complicated. New Jersey’s backward approach to drug policy created the climate we’re living: jails filled with petty pot criminals, a spiraling opiate crisis, and the nation’s worst medical cannabis program.
There are tons of examples of NJ getting drug policy wrong. I’ll share until by blood pressure spikes.
Vanity Won’t Help.
Remember when Chris Christie, the most unpopular Governor in NJ history, conceived that multimillion-dollar ad campaign to address NJ’s insatiable appetite for opiates? Recall how Christie embarrassingly cast himself in the roll of concerned spokesmodel? Who could forget?
“Featuring (Chris Chrisite) in anti-opioid ads to the tune of $40 million is questionable at best,” Senator Loretta Weinberg told InsiderNJ. “These ads had a shelf life the moment they were made.”
She’s right. The whole ill-conceived campaign, largely designed to bolster Christie’s abysmal approval rations, was a costly embarrassment. And much like the man himself, those ads became a punchline. The worst part: there’s scant evidence whatsoever that these stupid ads helped a a single, solitary family struggling with opiate addiction.
“Perhaps Putting some of that money into treatment and investigating ways of getting the message out through PSA’s and social media might be a better investment of funds,” Sen Weinberg added. “Governor Murphy has stated his office is reviewing the contracts and we are looking forward to seeing if there are any ways to make sure these ads are pulled And any savings reinvested into treatment options.”
OMG you guys, the sky is falling! I jest, but if you listen to the Ocean County Board of Freeholders discussing recreational cannabis, you’ll surely note the breathless hysteria. Calling marijuana more additive than cocaine (it’s not), Ocean Freeholder Director Robert Little introduced an anti-cannabis resolution that passed the all-GOP freeholder board by 4 votes to 0. They wanted to put their imprimatur on the debate to legalize recreational cannabis and boy what a doozy.
Considering Ocean County in ground zero for NJ’s heroin crisis, there’s no better example of lawmakers Getting It All Wrong than what just transpired in Ocean County.
Ocean Freeholder Virginia E. Haines, 71, couldn’t resist the oldest canard in the book: the gateway myth.
“A lot of people say it’s not a gateway drug, I disagree,” Haines said. “I know personally that it is a gateway drug and have lost somebody in my family, so I do believe it is wrong for the governor to do this. I am totally opposed to legalizing marijuana.”
I’ll offer this anecdotal rejoinder: I’m a former IV drug-user who took cannabis while detoxing from the drugs that nearly killed me. That was October 2003. But let’s not make this about dueling anecdotes. Let’s look at data instead of relying on anecdotes and hunches. A growing body of peer-reveiwed academic research demonstrates better opiate outcomes in the wake of reformed marijuana laws.
Notably, states where cannabis is legal report 25% fewer opioid-related fatalities. Apparently in places where people have an alternative to prescription opiates, better outcomes can and do happen. Go figure.
I did an extensive interview with Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronado last year about Ocean County’s heroin problem. If the top cop shares the Freeholder Board’s retrograde views on cannabis, he didn’t mention it once. Know what he is worried about? Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate 100x more powerful (and lethal) than heroin.
“Back in 2014 here in Ocean County, 10 percent of our heroin packets had Fentanyl in it. Back in 2015, 30 percent of our packets. In 2016, 65 percent of our packets had Fentanyl in it.”
But the Ocean County Freeholders aren’t taking about Fentanyl’s body count. Or how the heroin scourge is ruining lives in Ocean County, NJ’s heroin epicenter. They’re not talking about that. Instead they’re forgoing the opiate conversation altogether to brandish their Reefer Madness bona fides.
Saying demonstrably false things like “marijuana is more addictive than cocaine” is a surefire way to lost all credibility with youngsters. How are they supposed to take us seriously about the actual dangers of drugs and alcohol when we lie to them about the risks?
Here’s a pro-tip for Ocean County’s Freeholder Board: You’re at the epicenter of NJ’s opiate crisis. People are actually dying. Please keep your eye on that ball.
(FYI, Ocean followed another all-GOP Freeholder Board in Monmouth County decrying efforts to reform our state’s marijuana laws. So if you’re looking for an issue where democrats and republicans vote very differently, it’s marijuana.)
Why Ocean County? Well…
A quick peek at White House opiate policy reveals that 1) “Kellyanne Conway’s ‘opioid cabinet’ sidelines drug czar’s experts,” 2) Donald Trump wants to decimate the Drug Czar budget by 95%, and 3) Trump declared an opiate crisis by offering no money to fight it. These are all facts. South Jersey Congressman Tom MacArthur, a co-chair of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force, is not bothered that experts are being sidelined.
“If I want technical advice, I’m going to work with (Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Rich) Baum (who’s being sidelined),” TMac told Politico. “If I want to get a message to the president, Kellyanne is somebody that I know I can talk to.”
Of course, TMac neglected to note that Mr Baum, who’s spent decades at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is increasingly marginalized in favor Trump loyalists (who don’t know much about the opiate crisis.) Ms. Conway’s proximity to Trump may comfort TMac, but it doesn’t comfort me. And it certainly won’t help a heroin addict in TMac’s sprawling, opiate-rich district. What good is having tight relationships with powerful people, if those powerful people are part of the problem?
Andy Kim is running for TMac’s seat. Kim’s unimpressed with TMac’s approach to NJ’s opiate crisis.
“When the President calls it a public health emergency and puts zero dollars in new money in; when MacArthur, who is leading the task force, and all they do is pass two bills over the course of an entire year without moving forward with the level of urgency that we desire and need, especially in communities like here in Ocean and in Burlington that are feeling this in a way that’s devastating to families and their communities; those are the types of issues that I want to focus in on,” Kim said.
TMac’s bi-partisan opiate task force can’t yet offer actual results. Furthermore, in Ocean County, NJ’s heroin epicenter, there’s not a single syringe access site anywhere in TMac’s district, further proof that talk is cheap. Meanwhile, Congressman MacArthur is more sensitive to criticism about this issue than he is about the actual death toll.
(Note to TMac: your cozy relationship with the White House does do not much for families in your district ravaged by heroin! Your chairmanship of that committee is little solace to a mother in Tom’s River who just buried her son. And on a personal note, despite your immense kindness helping with my father’s final arrangements at Arlington Cemetery, I’ll never stop demanding more of you and your fellow lawmakers on this issue. I hope you understand.)
Curious why NJ’s opiate crisis won’t abate anytime soon? Now you know.
Jay Lassiter’s award-winning podcast HEROIN UNCUT, THE TRUTH ABOUT THE CRISIS is on iTunes and Google Play. You can binge-watch Season 1 in less than 3 hours. If you’re a lawmaker or a chief of staff or a legislative aide, this especially means you!