Increase in N.J. drug overdose numbers suggests more needs to be done

While the number of overdose deaths is lower than expected for 2021, advocates say the state now needs to implement approved policies to address the crisis.

Shown are used syringes collected at a needle exchange run by Camden Area Health Education Center in Camden, N.J., Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Shown are used syringes collected at a needle exchange run by Camden Area Health Education Center in Camden, N.J., Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Drug overdose deaths in New Jersey rose by one percent in 2021, according to preliminary figures.

The Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner recorded 3,081 suspected drug deaths last year. The number was lower than expected due to preliminary statistics through last November indicating that New Jersey was on pace to record more than 3,200 suspected drug deaths by the end of 2021.

As of the end of February, 563 suspected deaths have been recorded.

Advocates say the numbers show that New Jersey remains in crisis mode.

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Jenna Mellor, executive director of the N.J. Harm Reduction Coalition, said the problem is getting worse and not better.

“We are using Band-Aids for a huge wound in our drug policy,” she said.

The increase in deaths is modest when compared to other states, according to Angelo Valente, executive director of Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey. He added while the numbers have shown some stabilization, his organization is not satisfied with it.

“We need to be able to make every effort to bring those numbers down and hopefully to eliminate the problem completely,” he said.

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The U.S. surpassed a grim milestone in the first year of the pandemic; more than 100,000 overdose deaths were recorded. That represents a 28.5% increase over the previous period. The biggest increases were seen in Vermont, West Virginia and Kentucky.

Mellor adds that New Jersey has historically “doubled down” on the war on drugs. According to a report she authored for New Jersey Policy Perspective, the state spent $11.6 billion to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate people for drug crimes between 2010 and 2019.

“As long as we take a ‘drug war’ approach, we are not going to see the reduction in overdose deaths that we so desire,” she said.

Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a package of laws to deal with the opioid crisis. Among them, a bill to expand the number of harm reduction centers or needle exchanges.

Murphy along with Acting Attorney General Matt Platkin announced Friday that New Jersey will receive a $641 million share of a $26 billion nationwide settlement with New Brunswick-based Johnson & Johnson and three drug distributors. The state sued the companies for misleading customers about their opioid products being less addictive than competitors. They said the money will go towards funding efforts to fight the opioid epidemic, including establishing drug court programs on the municipal level.

Valente said Murphy, like other governors, is looking for ways to prevent overdose deaths. He says more harm reduction centers are a good first step, but the next step and long-term solution is to create a path from those centers to recovery. His organization has also advocated for educating the public about opioids and for doctors to prescribe alternatives.

“There’s no need in many, many situations to be prescribed an opiate,” he said. “There are many alternatives that are available.

While she praised the actions the Murphy Administration took in addressing the issue, Mellor said now is the time to implement the laws.

“We can have great laws on the books, which we do now, [but] we need to make sure that those laws are translating to people in our communities having harm reduction resources,” she said.

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