Governor Christie’s 2017 State of the State Address was missing one factual item: The role of drug criminalization in creating what the Governor called an “Addiction Epidemic.” The speech, which was heavy on drug-war fear rhetoric, grossly exaggerated the “addiction epidemic” while ignoring the role of the state’s own policies in creating the nightmare scenarios Governor Christie described in visceral.
“The absence of any recognition of the role of drug criminalization in what the Governor refers to as an “addiction epidemic” is alarming, considering that prohibition policy is creating many of the issues he wants to address” said Randy Thompson, CEO of Help Not Handcuffs. In addition, the role of prescription drugs in causing the initial transition to illicit drugs seems to be based on anecdotes rather than facts. “Blaming anyone involved in the drug use cycle, even our doctors, is required doctrine to avoid admitting that prohibition policy is largely responsible for social service deficits, drug overdoses and many of the harms his proposals seek to save people from” Thompson said.
Exaggerating the “Addiction Epidemic”
The Governor claimed the drug epidemic is “more urgent than any other epidemic” due to 1,600 overdose deaths in 2015 in New Jersey. While tragic, this fact is grossly out of context as in 2009 more than 1,900 people died in New Jersey from diabetes alone. Nationally, 1,300 people die each day from cigarette use. This misleading visceral is necessary for the continuation of failed Drug War tactics such as drug criminalization and forced treatment. The Governor’s misleading statistics also ignore the fact that overdoses are counted more than once by the Office of the State Medical Examiner when more than one drug is present in the deceased.
Prohibition is Causing Overdose Deaths
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Fentanyl deaths are a direct result of drug criminalization. Using substances that are legal, illegal or prescribed, all carry potential consequences. However, making drugs illegal adds risk due to non-regulation of the drugs. Unregulated drugs mean, the people consuming them wont know the purity of them or if they contain adulterants like Fentanyl. In one year 2013 – 2014 illicit fentanyl deaths rose 115% in Florida and 526% in Ohio. New Jersey’s Fentanyl deaths rose more than 300% in that same time period. To be clear, so long as NJ makes the same policy decisions to criminalize personal drug use, this will be a growing problem. Dozens of countries have had exceptional results reducing mortality and improving social outcomes by offering regulated heroin to people who already have a heroin use disorder and have failed regular treatment.
Prohibition is a Barrier to Treatment
Governor Christie spoke of removing barriers to treatment. Viewing treatment, as a significant solution is problematic as nearly 40% of people discharged from treatment in NJ, stated that they did not partially achieve their goal and nearly one in four people were still actively using drugs/alcohol at discharge, according to the 2015 NJ Substance Abuse Monitoring System. Even more concerning is that drug overdose deaths are the 3rd leading cause of death inside NJ’s drug rehab programs according to the New Jersey Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services. Because NJ has the most regressive compulsory drug court system, those people forced into treatment slots, many of which have no interest in treatment, take up space while those who want treatment are turned away. This is with the knowledge that compulsory treatment is less effective and often harmful when compared to voluntary treatment. Decriminalizing drug use will open a significant number of treatment slots in addition to not squandering resources. Simply appropriating more money to treatment providers, allows them to continually drug-war profiteer by trapping people in their programs while not addressing the deficit.
Prescription Drug Reality
The majority of people who use prescription drugs do so without any complications. Furthermore, the Governor’s proposal to have Attorney General Porrino issue an emergency rule limiting the initial supply of opioids to 5 days down from a 30 day supply. This constant barrage on prescription pills will have negative consequences as people with substance use disorder histories already face discrimination in receiving appropriate pain management as recognized by the World Health Organization. Not receiving medically appropriate pain management can jeopardize a person’s recovery. Lastly, it is well established that 75% of the people using prescription opiates for non-medical purposes get them from other sources than doctors so restricting genuinely needed practice will not address this issue (SAMHSA).
Forcing Criminal Justice Interaction
Most people arrested for drug possession have committed no harm to person or property and would not be involved in the criminal justice system if not for prohibition policy. In 2014 New Jersey arrested more than 42,000 people for drug possession alone. Exposure to the criminal justice system for drug use is intentionally harmful and carries severe risk exposure. The recent case of Katie Lee Thomas is a harrowing example as she was arrested for simple drug paraphernalia and found dead in a jail cell a few hours later in Neptune Township. Investing in community education and engagement on this issue would be a more effective measure while continuing non-coercive medicine drop-offs.
Help Not Handcuffs takes Governor Christie at his word that he will “accept ideas from any corner of the state” and we call on him to truly treat drug use as any other health issue meaning there would be no arrest and no forced treatment. This would require ending the harmful drug prohibitions via decriminalization, ending forced treatment and considering effective regulation of substances.