Harm reduction advocates, medical experts, and parents applaud introduction of harm reduction expansion bill

RELEASE – Harm reduction advocates, medical experts, and parents applaud introduction of harm reduction expansion bill

For Immediate Release

October 13, 2020 — Senator Joseph Vitale and Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle recently introduced an urgent and timely legislation (S3009, A4847) to expand harm reduction programs that prevent fatal overdoses and the spread of preventable infectious diseases. 

Earlier today, Senator Vitale and Assemblywoman Huttle announced their bill, also sponsored by Senator Vin Gopal, with advocates, parents, and medical experts at a virtual press conference.

“Harm reduction programs save lives,” said Wesley McWhite, Policy and Communications Associate at Hyacinth AIDS Foundation. “Fatal overdoses and infectious disease transmission are preventable, but only with the right tools and supports in place. Yet New Jersey has only seven harm reduction programs in a state of nine million people. Many clients have to travel or choose between socially isolating and getting lifesaving public health supplies. In this time of public health crisis, we commend Senator Vitale and Assemblywoman Huddle for taking necessary leadership to expand harm reduction to prevent fatal overdoses and reduce HIV and Hepatitis C transmission during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Harm reduction programs connect New Jerseyans who use drugs or are living with a substance use disorder to lifesaving resources: naloxone (also known as Narcan), HIV and Hepatitis C testing, safer injection supplies, fentanyl test strips, low-barrier substance use treatment, supportive counseling, and community. 

“For decades, New Jersey has lagged behind the nation in making lifesaving harm reduction services available to the two million New Jerseyans who use drugs or are living with a substance use disorder. We have lost thousands upon thousands of our loved ones to preventable overdoses, and many more are living with preventable infections and health complications,”said Jenna Mellor, Executive Director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “At the end of the day, legislators, community leaders, and loved ones have to ask ourselves: are we doing all we can as a state to prevent overdose deaths and prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks or drug supply poisoning? Until we expand harm reduction services, the answer is no.”

S-3009/A4847 would allow harm reduction programs to be offered throughout the state by lifting onerous approval requirements. As it stands, a harm reduction program can only operate if approved by the mayor and council of a municipality. As a result, New Jersey only has seven harm reduction programs in a state of nine million people. This requirement does not exist in other states, Democratic and Republican alike, that have successfully used harm reduction to prevent overdose deaths.   

“I am fighting for harm reduction expansion on behalf of my two beautiful and vibrant boys, Bryan and Alex, who I lost to fentanyl related overdose,,” said Carol Beyer, cofounder of Families for Sensible Drug Policy. “For no other chronic health condition would I need the approval of my local policymakers before getting my boys the care that is recommended by doctors and public health experts across the nation. Now is the time for New Jersey to do better, so that families do not continue losing our children when we know that harm reduction is a proven public health solution.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, people who have access to harm reduction programs are five times more likely to enter substance use treatment. They are also fifty percent less likely to acquire HIV or Hepatitis C. Earlier this year, the American Medical Association and U.S. Surgeon General urged state policymakers to expand harm reduction in the time of COVID. 

“The bottom line is that Harm Reduction Centers save lives,” said Alex Staropoli, Senior Manager for Policy & Advocacy at the Camden Coalition. “At a time when our state is facing the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and the overdose crisis, New Jersey must do all that it can to put an end to preventable deaths. In Camden, we see firsthand the impact our local Harm Reduction Center has on the people we serve. All New Jerseyans deserve convenient access to these services — the lives of our family members, friends, and loved ones depend on it.”

“Returns to use are a very real part of recovery, and the services at the harm reduction centers allowed me to stay alive during my process. I’m here today, healthy, safe, and thriving, with over nine years in recovery from Opioid Use Disorder, and I’m not sure I would be here without the access to sterile syringes, condoms, HIV and HCV testing, naloxone and overdose prevention tips, counseling services, and humane kindness I was shown at the harm reduction center,” said Caitlin O’Neill, Director of Harm Reduction Services at the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “New Jersey must expand harm reduction because every human being deserves a chance to stay alive and thrive, to have access to humane, modern public health services that are, for many of us, quite literally the difference between life and death. No human being is disposable.”

“As an emergency room doctor, I treat patients daily whose conditions could have been prevented if only we had a center like this in our community. If such a center did exist in our community, I would write my patients a prescription directing them to it along with the medications they need. That’s how effective the services these centers provide are,” said Aakash Shah, emergency room physician, medical director at New Jersey Reentry Corporation, and board member at New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. 

“We lost more of our loved ones, family members, and neighbors to fatal drug-related overdoses in May of this year than in any other month in recorded history. Black and Latinx New Jerseyans, as well as low-paid workers, are among the hardest hit both by the effects of the pandemic and by increased substance use and lack of harm reduction programs,” said Christian Fuscarino, Executive Director of Garden State Equality. “New Jersey urgently needs harm reduction expansion and bold leadership to improve public health across the state, especially for the most vulnerable among us. This piece of legislation provides all of that.”

“We are years into a preventable overdose crisis and syringe access programs are a proven and highly effective tool for reducing overdose deaths,” said Dionna King, Vital Strategies, Overdose Prevention Program. “Syringe access programs save lives and save money. They promote public health, preventing HIV, Hepatitis C, and overdose death, and engaging people who use drugs for services and support, including life-saving medication treatment.”

“S-3009 is an exemplary step in the direction of sensible and responsible drug policy. Expanding syringe access is one way of shifting the narrative from punishment to harm reduction and rehabilitation. And it is not just conceptually important; it is necessary for saving lives,” said Reverend Amos Caley, Campaign Director at Salvation and Social Justice. 

Watch the press conference here.

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The mission of the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation is to help people live with HIV, stop the spread of the epidemic, and serve as a critical voice in the public debate surrounding AIDS in New Jersey.

 

New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition promotes harm reduction by distributing naloxone, fentanyl test steps, and other harm reduction supplies through peer-led programs; advocates for syringe access expansion and equitable drug policy reform; and organizes to build power among people directly harmed by overdose and the War on Drugs. 

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