February 13, 2023 (Trenton) — Today, 150+ recovery specialists, harm reduction providers, and policy experts opposed proposals to increase penalties for fentanyl (S-3325 and S-3096) through testimony and slips of opposition. Organizations submitting their opposition include ACLU-NJ, NAACP-NJST, Latino Action Network Foundation, Salvation and Social Justice, Newark Community Street Team, National Center for Advocacy and Recovery,Northern New Jersey MAT Center of Excellence, New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, Make The Road New Jersey, Office of African American Gay Concerns, South Jersey AIDS Alliance, New Jersey Organizing Project, New Jersey Policy Perspective, and New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition.
“Harsher punishment for people who use drugs will not end the overdose crisis but make it worse,” said Caitlin O’Neill (they/them), Director of Harm Reduction Services at New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “Increasing penalties for fentanyl possession will make it less likely that people who use drugs will call 9-1-1 to report an overdose or seek help and support for their own drug use. These bills will not harm cartels or make the drug supply safer — if anything, it will incentivize the production and sale of even more potent synthetic drugs that will cause more overdose deaths. We have over 50 years of evidence that harsher penalties for drugs do not work, and that they disproportionately harm Black and Latinx communities. It is time to learn from history and treat drug use as a public health issue instead of repeating the mistakes of the past.”
Increased fentanyl penalties will worsen the overdose crisis and criminalize the same people who policymakers say deserve care and compassion. The penalties in the proposed legislation are for weights of substances so commonly used and carried that they would worsen a dangerous net of criminalization for people living with a substance use disorder. Criminalization makes it harder for people to connect to treatment and care, and disincentivizes people from calling 9-1-1 or seeking help.
Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are in the drug supply because of prohibition policies like the proposed legislation, and these bills will only make the drug supply more dangerous. Increased arrests and criminal penalties do not result in lower drug use or fewer sales. Instead, they incentivize new and more potent synthetic drugs that result in more deaths. Crackdowns on heroin are why fentanyl is so present in the current drug supply. Now, crackdowns on fentanyl have opened the door to newer, more potent opioid drugs like nitazene and etizolam, endangering people who use drugs.
Increased fentanyl penalties will also fuel racial injustice. Black residents are already 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for drug penalties than their white peers, despite white people both using and selling criminalized drugs at higher rates. Overdose deaths for Black residents increased over the past year, while they decreased for white residents and in the state overall.
“Further criminalizing fentanyl is not only ineffective but actively harmful as it will endanger the exact people lawmakers claim this legislation will help,” said Marleina Ubel, Policy Analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective. “Ending the overdose crisis will not be easy, but all of the evidence available to us shows that it will require a public health approach to drug sue, not harsher penalties and reactionary policies that have not been proven to work.”
“After more than fifty years of the War on Drugs, data makes clear that criminalization does not deter drug use or sale or end overdose deaths. Instead, these policies make us less safe and harm communities, particularly Black and brown communities that are disproportionately targeted by police and already overrepresented in New Jersey’s prison system,” said Ami Kachalia, Campaign Strategist at ACLU-NJ. “The penalty increases proposed in these two bills will only exacerbate this harm and prevent people from seeking the care and services that they need. If New Jersey truly wants to address the overdose death crisis, we must invest in evidence-based public health solutions – like harm reduction, housing, and employment – not more punishment.”
“While this law purportedly intends to decrease higher level distribution of deadly fentanyl, in practice, it is a punitive, criminal response to a complex societal and medical issues, including mental health challenges and co-occurring substance use disorders, poverty, and racial inequities. There is a plethora of data and historical proof that criminal penalties are not effective in changing behavior of people with substance use disorders and supply side interventions are not only ineffective, but produce deadly unintended consequences,” said Nikki Tierney, Policy Analyst for National Center for Advocacy and Recovery. “This law, however well intended, will exacerbate the current damage and death from the drug epidemic. We are hopeful that leaders will consult w harm reduction advocates, mental health and substance use disorder professionals, and people w lived experience to design a humane and effective response to the poisoned drug supply and supporting people w substance use disorder.”
“This clearly is the effort of someone who knows nothing about addiction or the harm caused by our drug policies. By further penalizing people who use and sell fentanyl you will be exacerbating the harms of our existing drug policy and increasing overdose deaths,” said Sandy Gibson, clinical practitioner and Chairwoman of the New Jersey Addiction Professional Association’s Advocacy Committee. “Under our current prohibitionist policies, it is often impossible to distinguish between someone who uses drugs, who policymakers say deserve support, and someone who is selling drugs or helping supply their social networks. This legislation will CAUSE overdose deaths, not prevent them and will do absolutely nothing to reduce the presence of Fentanyl in our drug supply.”
“It is often said that budgets reflect our values and priorities. If lawmakers truly value the safety of New Jersey’s communities and residents, that is best demonstrated through significant investments in housing, education, health care and community led solutions. We don’t solve the issue of substance use and overdose by increasing penalties,” said Racquel Romans-Henry, Policy Director for Salvation and Social Justice. “ Instead, we should invest in increased services for communities by funding harm reduction efforts and community-led first response teams trained to respond to substance use and mental health calls free from police intervention or presence. We have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. We cannot incarcerate our way to public safety.”
New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition promotes harm reduction by distributing naloxone, fentanyl test steps, and other harm reduction supplies through peer-led programs; advocates for syringe access expansion and equitable drug policy reform; and organizes to build power among people directly harmed by overdose and the War on Drugs.