Home>Legislature>Opinion: 150+ public health experts call on New Jersey legislators to change discriminatory syringe access law and save lives

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Opinion: 150+ public health experts call on New Jersey legislators to change discriminatory syringe access law and save lives

By Sandy Gibson, December 30 2021 12:13 pm

OPINION

We are losing a generation of loved ones and family members to the overdose crisis. In 2021, New Jersey is on track to lose more people to overdose deaths than ever previously recorded, with overdose death rates rising fastest among Black and Hispanic/Latinx residents.

New Jersey’s overdose crisis compounds the existing HIV and Hepatitis C burdens borne by residents, and is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, people living with a substance use disorder are more likely to become ill and die from COVID-19, with Black residents living with an opioid use disorder most harmed by the pandemic.

As experts in public health and substance use disorder treatment, we know that substance use is a public health issue and that syringe access programs (SAPs) are one of the best healthcare tools we have to end the overdose crisis.

Fortunately, the New Jersey State Legislature is currently considering legislation to remove barriers to syringe access (S-3009/A-4846), decriminalize syringe possession (S-3493/A-5458), and save lives. We recently joined with over 150 academics, public health experts, clinicians, and recovery advocates calling the New Jersey Legislature to pass this legislation — immediately and with the urgency that residents at-risk of overdose deserve.

Decades of research show that syringe access programs decrease the harms related to substance use while not increasing violence, crime, or substance use itself. People who access syringe services also get access to HIV testing, on-site medical advice and referrals, food, hygiene products, medications for opioid use disorder like buprenorphine, recovery support, and more.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when people have access to a syringe access program they are less likely to die from an opioid-related overdose; five times more likely to stop substance use that causes them problems; three times more likely to stop substance use altogether; and 50 percent less likely to acquire HIV and Hepatitis C

Despite the clear benefits of syringe access programs, New Jersey has woefully underutilized the lifesaving public health tool for decades. Restrictive syringe access laws are an undue and discriminatory barrier to healthcare for our patients, clients, and neighbors. We do not require a municipal ordinance for pharmacies, doctor’s offices, or methadone clinics — but we put this additional (and discriminatory) hurdle in front of lifesaving syringe access services.

The consequences of New Jersey’s restrictive laws are deadly. New Jersey only has seven syringe access programs serving a state of over nine million residents across 565 municipalities. Kentucky has over 20 times as many syringe services per capita as New Jersey, and our law is more restrictive than those of North Carolina, Tennessee, or Georgia.

The evidence is clear: syringe services work. Syringe access programs increase safety and wellbeing for individuals and our communities while reducing burdens on our first responder and healthcare systems. Arguments against the programs, unfortunately, are rooted in stigma, discrimination, and misconceptions about the scientific support for programs, not public health.

As public health experts, healthcare providers, recovery advocates, and clinicians who have vowed to do no harm to our clients, it is our responsibility to support legislation to remove restrictive barriers to syringe access (S-3009/A-4847 and S-3493/A-5458) and advocate for basic healthcare access for all people who use drugs and people living with a substance use disorder.

Every day we wait, our clients, loved ones, and communities are suffering needlessly. New Jersey’s leaders must take action today to prevent overdose deaths and save lives. We cannot let outdated and discriminatory laws cost us the life of one more family member, client, student, or loved one.

Sandy Gibson, PhD, LCSW, LCADC, is a Professor of Counselor Education at The College of New Jersey.  This op-ed was also signed by Michael B. Mitchell, Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Criminology at The College of New Jersey; Sean K. Wilson, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at William Paterson University; Chelsey Cain. Visiting Assistant Professor of Criminology at The College of New Jersey; Jamey Lister, Assistant Professor at Rutgers University School of Social Work; and Natasha Patterson, Assistant Professor of Public Health at The College of New Jersey.

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