“Unfortunately one of the things that I haven’t seen is that access to treatment has not become ubiquitous,” said Stephen Stirling, a reporter for NJ Advance Media at NJTV News’ Drug Addiction Crisis Forum this week. This rather tactful statement highlights our failure to provide the necessary services, particularly for the many who cannot afford the prices at private clinics. He went on to say, “What we have seen though, unfortunately, is the number of African-American people who have died in the past year or two has spiked dramatically.”
Fentanyl – the extremely powerful and cheap synthetic that’s been lacing heroin in the past years – has substantially increased fatalities and made the problem worse. However, the causes and solutions are multi-factorial. They go beyond just more treatment beds and finding a way to deal with the fentanyl scourge.
Reporters, governors, legislators, professionals in the field, clergy, activists, prosecutors, hospitals, doctors, correctional facilities, affected family members, and the public writ large have been grappling with this insidious problem in our state.
NJTV’s First Drug Addiction Crisis Forum in March 2016 focused on who is using heroin and “gateway” drugs, abusing opioids, and the stigma facing both addicts and their loved ones as they search for recovery. To NJTV’s credit, and particularly to correspondent Michael Hill, it has continued pursuing the issue.
Stephen Stirling is another reporter who started writing about the crisis in 2016 when he wondered what it would be like if all of New Jersey’s heroin addicts lived in a single town. With a population of 128,000, it would be the fourth largest city in the Garden State. Another writer said, ”Laced with interactive graphics, charts, personal stories, and loads of data, the final result of Stirling’s labor of love is both a work of art and a masterful piece of journalism.” (Preview image above via Anna Vignet, for NJ Advance Media)
Former Governor Chris Christie hyped the problem, featuring himself in commercials during his quest for the presidency, and offered several solutions but provided insufficient funding. Former Governor James McGreevey has actually been working in the field and has become an outspoken advocate. Even earlier former Governor Codey addressed the issue in relation to the frequent co-concurrence of mental health illness. Current Governor Murphy during his campaign said he would undertake six specific, worthwhile actions, and last month he detailed plans for a $100 million opioid fight. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in February created an office for over-seeing addiction-fighting efforts within the the government and creating partnerships with other agencies.
Many have been involved in combatting this major public health crisis, while others not so much. The Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey provides Information and resources for families, doctors, in the work-place, in schools, in the community and in the media. Integrity House in Newark founded in 1968 is just one of the treatment facilities which have helped drug users and advocated for them. While some church leaders have been slow to address the problem others have become actively involved. Doctors who in the past did not want drug users as patients and often over-prescribed addictive medicines are becoming more responsible. Pharmaceutical firms which have been indiscriminately pushing their opioids are being called to task. Many professionals in the field speak out freely but too often advocate primarily for their agency’s specific concerns such long-term treatment, methadone, or drug services for the incarcerated. The general public has become more aware of the dangers but remains divided and uncertain as to what should be done.
In Part II of this series, with so many people having different solutions to the epidemic, we will address some over-arching, common sense approaches.