Our lawmakers are moving setbacks, not solutions – but we’re pushing back.

Elissa Tierney testified at the Statehouse on behalf of Not 0ne More and Sea Change RCO.

Imagine a world where we treat each other with care. A world where people aren’t locked away for our mistakes but offered a way to heal. Where treatment, harm reduction, and community support are widely available, helping people overcome these challenges. 

This is the world that we’re fighting for together. But in early February 2023, several of our members raised concern about two bills being introduced by our local New Jersey state Senators, S3096 (Gopal) and S3325 (Sarlo), that aim to add extreme penalties for fentanyl on top of those that already exist. 

Our lawmakers need our expertise to understand what’s really happening on the frontlines of the overdose crisis, because right now they’re moving setbacks, not solutions. It makes sense to want to punish something that does us harm, but these bills aren’t punishing fentanyl, and they’re not punishing the overdose crisis – they’re punishing ordinary people. As it stands now, 8 in 10 drug arrests in New Jersey are for someone’s personal possession or use, because the laws on the books make it hard to distinguish between high-level drug sellers and people who only own drugs because they use drugs.

These bills would make that even worse, targeting the everyday people who are hit the hardest by the overdose crisis and punishing them with even more extreme penalties. This pulls people away from their communities, away from their support structures, and further into a spiral of isolation and hopelessness. If passed, these bills will only deter folks from seeking help, community support, and treatment for fear of criminal legal consequences – which will cause more preventable overdose deaths. 

We can’t allow that to happen. So we asked our members if we should take a stand against these bills as an organization, and got moving. We joined our allies, including Sea Change RCO, the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition (NJHRC), and New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union (NJ ACLU), and headed to Trenton to tell our elected officials that extreme legal penalties only further target and stigmatize the people who most need compassion and help.

Our member Elissa Tierney testified (for the first time!) at the Statehouse on behalf of Not 0ne More and Sea Change RCO. Here’s what she said:  

“As a mother of twins who are turning ten years old this March, I understand the urge to seek justice when it comes to the overdose crisis that’s ravaging New Jersey. When our loved ones are impacted by addiction, we want to see someone face consequences. I used to think this way until two back surgeries left me struggling with addiction. I became even more isolated. When you feel more and more hopeless, it gets harder and harder to get out. The light seemed so far away that I thought I’d never get out of this hole – especially when I had to spend several days in jail.

Thank god charges were dropped against me and I was able to move forward. I had understanding judges who worked with me and I eventually came out on the other side. Because I wasn’t criminalized for my addiction, I was able to recover and move forward – but not everybody gets a break like I did. Bills such as S3096 and S3325 deprive people of an opportunity to move forward and fail to address the realities of living with addiction and poverty.” 

Current laws on the books already include severe penalties for drug sale and possession of fentanyl – at minimum a person will be charged with a 2nd degree crime and receive 5-10 years in prison. But these new bills would drastically lower the amount of a drug someone would need to have (or “threshold”) to be charged with a felony. Due to the lowered thresholds in the new bills, almost all people charged with fentanyl sale or possession will be charged with a first-degree felony – for which the standard penalty is 10-20 years in prison and a fine of up to $200,000. 

Yikes. We want to end the overdose crisis too, but as people who are directly impacted, we know from experience that this approach is not going to save lives or get drugs off the streets. Since 1986, when New Jersey first doubled down on increasing drug penalties, drug arrests have increased by 57 percent, and this did nothing to prevent overdose deaths or address the root causes of drug use.

New Jersey already spends $1.2 billion annually on drug arrests and incarceration — that’s 2.6 times more than annual investment in addiction services, 40.4 times more than homelessness services and housing vouchers, and 544.6 times more than harm reduction services. 

As people with lived experience with substance use disorder, as well as concern for our loved ones and community members, we know that punishing people for their pain just doesn’t work. Instead, people who use drugs need access to quality, affordable healthcare that meets them where they are, wide-spread harm reduction services, and compassion to live healthier lives. New Jersey has to invest in harm reduction and evidence-informed solutions if it really wants to end the overdose crisis and allow our communities the chance to recover. 

We’re committed to getting our State Senators to pull these bills by telling them why they go against evidence-based solutions and will lead to more overdose deaths, not less. We need solutions that treat people with dignity and respect. 

If you have a personal story around this issue you’d like to share, or want to join us in the fight for care instead of criminalization: reach out to us at info@newjerseyop.org! The more voices we have calling for our solutions, the bigger our collective impact can be.

To learn more about the consequences increased fentanyl penalties could have on our Jersey communities, check out NJHRC’s fact sheet.