The Insider NJ Interview With NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal

InsiderNJ recently met up with NJ’s Attorney General, Gurbir Grewal to chew the fat. It was a wide-ranging conversation that included the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, cannabis reform, LaCroix sparkling water, and something called NJCares, a “real time dashboard of opioid-related data and information.”

NJCares tracks the the numbers behind NJ’s insatiable appetite for heroin and prescription opioids. It’s sad but also quite fascinating. Click to discover how many fatal drug overdoes occurred in NJ this year. (Hint: It’s a lot.) Or discover how, so far this year, NJ doctors have written 3,208,869 prescriptions for opiates in the Garden State.

“One of the things that I wanted to do when I first got here was to share all this information,” NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal told InsiderNJ. “So if you go to NJCares.gov, the website we stood up in real time, (you’ll see) not just the fatal overdoses in the state — which is sort of horrific — but we wanted to prompt people to look at it, to have a conversation and really draw the stigma from it to show that it’s happening by county.”

Would you be surprised to learn that Monmouth County is the state’s top prescriber with 426,892 ‘scripts dispensed so far this year? There’s also Narcan’s meteoric rise. The AG cited Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s 60-100 more powerful than morphine.

“These numbers are still going up, both Narcan administrations and the overdose deaths, and that’s the Fentanyl piece,” Grewal told InsiderNJ. “Drugs are just more powerful, you have people – chemists, heroin mills – who don’t know how to deal with Fentanyl and they’re just cutting it into whatever they’re selling. The fear of death is not stopping addicts. At that point you’re not using to get high”

That’s an important point to reflect on: no one uses heroin to party. It’s not fun or social. You’re using because you’re in pain and ultimately because you’re terrified of the dope sickness.

NJCares collates overdose rates and Narcan hits in real time. That keeps us all honest. Indexing this data by geography brings it home. And since 4 out of 5 heroin users start out on prescription opioids, the AG’s keeping tabs on how many pills are flying off the shelves, as well.

“We have a prescription monitoring program within the Division of Consumer Affairs. So we have the ability to see in real time prescribing of opioids by doctor.”

The Division of Consumer Affairs protects us from doctors and pharmaceutical companies that dispense or market prescription opioids in a unethical, dishonest way. They also have oversight over the licensing of doctors.

“The other piece I wanted to mention is that we’re using data now, we’re not only releasing it, but we’re using it to target people,” Grewal told InsiderNJ. “The same way we use crime data to target violent criminals, we have that same ability to take the overdose numbers – and even take crime numbers like robberies or pawnshop data – and put a profile together so we can help our smaller departments target that likely next overdose. So that’s coming down the pike too. Using big data to target the next overdose victim before it happens. It’s a powerful tool. Huge.”

LaCroix for $500, Alex

I could tell by he way he offed me a lime LaCroix water that Attorney General Gurbir Grewal would be really good on Jeopardy.

How did he know I’m obsessed with LaCroix water? Did he just big-data me?

“It’s my favorite,” I said, explaining that my partner’s from Milwaukee and I loved LaCroix back when it was a refreshing, provincial treat way before it was available at every Target in NJ.

“G. Heileman Brewery,” Gurbir replied, naming the LaCroix’s birthplace in LaCrosse Wisconsin. He further explained that LaCroix (pronounced LaCroy) was first pitched and marketed as a less stuck-up version of Perrier.

LaCroix, a sparkling water for the proletariat. Who knew? And here I though I was the aficionado!

Beverage in hand, we veered onto awkward terrain.

I was listening live that day when, in a spasm of humorless, talentless mediocrity, NJ1015’s mid-day hosts Judi Franco and Dennis Malloy tee’d off on  Grewal for wearing a turban. He’s Sikh-American. Even for a station increasingly devoted to cultivating grievances, this seemed beyond the pale.

I nearly drove off the road I was so mortified.

I’m all about edgy humor. We all love a good roast. But mocking his name and his appearance made me, a long time listener, embarrassed for them. I remember many times when Dennis and Judi made me laugh so hard my abs hurt.

I miss those days.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is poised to be a transformational leader on cannabis reform and the opiate crisis. He has long since moved on from the slight.

I, it would appear, have not.

Last year, I wrote, presented a co-produced an award winning podcast called Heroin Uncut, the Truth About the Crisis that was hosted by NJ1015. Heroin Uncut was a labor of love and some of my very best work.

I actually asked Grewal, then Bergen’s Prosecutor, to be a guest on the pod. I liked his novel approach to the opiate crisis and I wanted to share it. He said yes but I met with the Ocean County Prosecutor instead. It was a shorter drive.

Then I let the Attorney General in on a little secret.

I told him that because of Heroin Uncut my old iPad is still logged onto Twitter as NJ1015. And for many days I contemplated issuing the perfect apology that never was forthcoming from the station because they aren’t sorry.

I would have said something like “We were jerks and we lost the plot. We’re sorry. Don’t let a bad personal moment on our part detract from the fact that our AG’s a decent guy and NJ is lucky to have him. We promise to be more hilarious next time!

But better judgment won out.

So was the Attorney General impressed with my restraint?

He chucked just a little.

“I’m impressed with your restraint because I think we would be having a different conversation if you logged onto somebody else’s Twitter and used their access,” he said.

(Note to NJ1015: change your twitter password.)

Yes We Cannabis!

Gurbir Grewal wants to reform NJ’s marijuana laws. He was set to issue new prosecution guidelines, a sort of decrim-light, when Jersey City prosecutor Jake Hudnut scooped him.

That delighted cannabis activists but frustrated the Attorney General who maintains the Jersey City model, no matter how instinctively pleasing to reformers, actually diminishes the discretion of law enforcement.

“I can’t have folks prosecuting cases however they wish because of their personal agenda regardless of which way they follow this issue,” Grewal told InsiderNJ, warning that opens the door for an anti-pot prosector somewhere else in NJ.

“And the other piece Jay is that when you do something like this, it has to be done in close coordination with law-enforcement,” Grewal told InsiderNJ. “With all the stakeholders. So whenever I have issued a directive here, it has effects on law enforcement, it affects stakeholders. So I’ve had them at the table and that’s my philosophy. You’ll always have a seat at my table, we may not always agree, but you’ll always be heard out and you always have a voice.”

You can still get arrested for cannabis in New Jersey. But thank to new-ish guidelines from the AG’s office, there should be considerably fewer incarcerations. This, in ancipation of the NJ legalizing recreational cannabis altogether.

“Particularly because there’s talk (in the statehouse) there will be legalization down the street, potentially expungement to go along with that,” Grewal said, referring to a planned vote to legalize cannabis in the NJ Senate on October 29th.

“And so while that’s happening, while that process is playing out, let’s hit pause on  prosecutions and exercise discretion in these cases,” Grewal added.

I’d rather hit “stop” than pause, but I’m an upper-middle-class white guy in the leafy suburbs so I can afford the luxury of a methodical debate. Not so for many black people who continue to bear the brunt of our state’s retrograde cannabis policy. NJ Attorney General Grewal’s reform-minded directives should staunch that trend. Those disparities are on his mind. He said so repeatedly.

And I believe him. The art on the wall was proof.

 

Wrapping up

If you visit NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office, you’ll see several framed black-and-white portraits of Japanese-Americans who were snatched from their homes and locked up in concentration camps during WWII. Over 30,000 children languished in those camps. It was a dark, shameful part of our nation’s history.

It’s 2018, and we’re still putting children in cages: black kids getting locked up for weed and also migrant children getting locked up for seeking asylum.

The images of those Japanese Americans whose liberties were stolen seems more relevant than ever. I’m glad it’s the first and last thing our attorney general sees every day at work.

 

Jay Lassiter is a militant, unrepentant Oxford comma zealot. He penned the InsiderNJ OUT 100 Power List, a tribute to influential LGBTs in NJ politics. He’s on twitter @Jay_Lass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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