N.J. service providers say ‘harm reduction’ working on opioids, but more can be done

Participants at a Trenton workshop said funders and others looking to measure progress may not see it in the strategy of aiding drug users where they are.

(Toby Talbot/AP Photo, File)

(Toby Talbot/AP Photo, File)

New Jersey service providers who work with drug users say the state has come a long way in implementing “harm reduction” strategies but that more can be done.

Hundreds of public health workers gathered in Trenton on Wednesday for a harm reduction workshop organized by the Department of Health, as the state continues to battle a growing opioid crisis that contributed to a suspected 3,118 drug overdose deaths in 2018.

Harm reduction is an approach that accepts the existence of drug use and suggests offering assistance and treatment to drug users where they are, even if they are not ready to stop using.

Though many attendees praised the direction of the state under Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who has said battling the opioid crisis is one of his top priorities, service providers also said they continued to struggle with many common problems around treating addiction.

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Henry Godette, the harm reduction coordinator at North Jersey Community Research Initiative, said it is difficult for his nonprofit to demonstrate to funders that their clients are making progress toward sobriety.

“It’s very hard to explain to people that what we’re doing is important, because everybody wants a result. They want a detox. They want you to show that all these people got clean because of us,” Godette said.

Others said they continue to bump up against the stigma surrounding addiction, despite how prevalent opioid abuse is.

Babette Richter works for the South Jersey AIDS Alliance as an ARCH nurse, providing specialty care around pregnancy and HIV transmission. Richter said some people still blame services such as syringe exchanges for the worsening drug problem.

“The public and the public officials want to say that we have brought trouble into their neighborhood and made it bad, rather than recognizing we are where we are because it was already in the neighborhood,” Richter said. “We’re here to help.”

The South Jersey AIDS Alliance is one of seven harm reduction centers across the state that offer health screenings and counseling, distribute condoms and clean syringes, and more.

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