Gov. Phil Murphy announced today, on Overdose Awareness Day in New Jersey, his administration is expanding naloxone distribution and launching an overdose data dashboard to combat the state’s opioid crisis.
On a day in which we remember without stigma those who have died while acknowledging the grief of their family and friends, legislators statewide, including Senator Patrick J. Diegnan Jr., are raising awareness about addiction and drug-related deaths, spreading a message of hope.
Residents facing addiction, or their family and friends, can call the state’s help line (1-844-ReachNJ) 24 hours daily for immediate assistance and support from live New Jersey-based trained addiction counselors. ReachNJ assists callers regardless of their insurance status.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdose deaths in 2020 rose nearly 30 percent to a record 93,000 nationwide. Another 2.5 million drug users in the United States are treated annually in emergency departments for drug abuse.
“While we are making incredible strides in our fight against the opioid epidemic, we must continue to expand access to harm reduction interventions,” Murphy said in a press release. “We have already lost over 2,000 New Jerseyans to suspected overdoses this year, which is why it is critical to strengthen our ability to save lives by preventing overdose deaths and connecting people to supports and treatment.”
Diegnan has introduced multiple bills in recent years, some of which have been signed into law, to combat opioid use and drug overdose.
Some current legislation awaiting action in the State House of which Diegnan is a first prime or co-sponsor includes:
S2170: Establishes Office of Alcohol and Drug Use Disorders Policy to oversee, direct, and coordinate resources, funding, and data tracking concerning treatment of substance use disorders.
S2079: “New Jersey Coordinated Substance Use Control Policy and Planning Act,” which concerns the coordination of comprehensive substance use control policies, programs, services, and supports in New Jersey, supplementing Title 26 of the Revised Statutes, and amending and repealing various parts of the statutory law.
S229: Establishes pilot program for integrated system of treatment for opioid use disorders.
S241: Concerns eligibility, procedures, and post-program relief for certain drug or alcohol dependent persons sentenced to special probation, or regular probation which as a condition of such requires substance use disorders treatment.
S3009: Authorizes expanded provision of harm reduction services to distribute sterile syringes and provide certain support services to persons who use drugs intravenously; appropriates $15 million.
S2951: Expands offenses eligible for expungement upon successful discharge from drug court.
Murphy signed into law three years ago a bill Diegnan introduced requiring the State Department of Education to develop an educational fact sheet for distribution to parents of student-athletes and cheerleaders concerning the use and misuse of prescription opioids in the event their child is prescribed an opioid for a sports-related injury.
“We have to make sure our student-athletes, cheerleaders and their parents are educated about the dangers of opioids and the potential for abuse,” Diegnan said at the time Murphy signed his legislation. “This law will help to ensure that happens and, in turn, will boost our prevention efforts.”
Under the law, school districts and nonpublic schools that participate in interscholastic sports or cheerleading programs are required to distribute the fact sheet annually to the parents or guardians of student-athletes and cheerleaders, and to obtain a signed acknowledgement of the receipt of the fact sheet by the students and their parents or guardians.
“The misuse of prescribed opioids, which can lead to addiction, is having devastating effects on our families and communities,” said Senator Joseph Vitale, who also sponsored the bill, said at the time of its signing into law.
“Providing students and families with the tools to start the conversation about the risks of opioid abuse in the event of a sports injury could prevent a problem from starting. The fact is that knowledge is power when it comes to fighting the opioid and heroin epidemic that is claiming the lives of our residents and youth, and education must continue to be a leading part of our efforts.”
A story from the Asbury Park Press on Overdose Awareness Day addresses the plight of Nikki Tierney, a Mater Dei basketball star in the 1980s who became addicted to prescription painkillers for an injury.
A fierce advocate for the expungement bill of which Diegnan is a co-sponsor, Tierney “has undergone a remarkable transformation from drug and alcohol dependency to community pillar,” according to the Asbury Park Press.
“Twice, during the throes of addiction, (Tierney) had to be revived with Narcan, the anti-overdose drug,” the Asbury Park Press reported. “Now she’s throwing a lifeline to others as a certified crisis counselor and peer recovery specialist.”
A week before Overdose Awareness Day 2021 was recognized, Patch.com reported Murphy recently took a step toward combating the opioid crisis in announcing support for a bill, of which Diegnan is also co-sponsor, that would increase access to sterile needle exchange services statewide.
“As we experience a rise in drug use and overdose deaths nationally and in New Jersey due to the pandemic, we must confront this public health issue head on by securing access to sterile needle exchange services in our state,” Acting Governor Sheila Oliver, who serves as Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, told Patch.com.
“I call on our legislators to prioritize this issue and send a bill to the Governor’s desk to sign as soon as possible when they reconvene this fall so that we can keep people out of harm’s way and continue to work toward addressing infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS in New Jersey.”
In proclaiming Aug. 31 Overdose Awareness Day in New Jersey, Murphy followed the lead of organizers of International Overdose Awareness Day, recognizing communities worldwide use the occasion to remember those lost to drug overdose and to support their loved ones.
“Every life lost to a drug overdose is one too many,” said Acting Attorney General Andrew J. Bruck said in a press release. “Today, as we recognize and mourn the lives lost, we are taking overdose prevention measures that will undoubtedly spare other families the pain and sorrow so many are feeling today.”
International Overdose Awareness Day organizers cite Aug. 31 as a “time to remember” and a “time to act.”
The Garden State is heeding that advice.