By Elissa Tierney
Imagine a world where we treat each other with care. A world where people aren’t locked away for their mistakes but are offered a way to heal. As someone in recovery from substance use disorder, this is the world I’m fighting for with my community.
Some of our New Jersey legislators, however, are still pushing for War on Drugs-style policies that do more to hurt us than to help us end the overdose crisis together. State bill S3325, sponsored by Sen. Paul Sarlo, aims to intensify already existing criminal penalties for fentanyl by lowering the drug thresholds required to bring people in on felony charges and giving people longer sentences.
It makes sense to want to punish something that does us harm, but these penalties aren’t punishing fentanyl, and they’re not punishing the overdose crisis. They’re punishing ordinary people. No one should ever have to make the decision between calling 911 to save someone from an overdose or going to jail.
If I thought that increased drug penalties would curb overdose rates, I would be supporting this bill 100%. As a mother, if something happened to my twins because of fentanyl I would want someone to be held responsible, justice to be served, and to feel like I did something to fix it. But I know from experience that this is not a real solution, it’s a setback in the fight for our lives.
Evidence has shown us time and time again that harsher penalties have never worked. Since 1986, when New Jersey first doubled down on increasing drug penalties, drug arrests have increased by 57%, and stiffer penalties did nothing to prevent overdose deaths or address the root causes of drug use.
More recently, when we realized that millions were addicted to opioids, our legislators took swift action and put in place extreme measures to crack down on these drugs. But what was the effect this had on people struggling to stay alive and heal? It sent already addicted people to the streets in droves, or into prison, furthering a cycle of pain and isolation that does nothing to help people truly recover. It backfired — and so will this bill.
I think about this issue from the minute I wake up until I fall asleep because I’ve lived it. When I was struggling with addiction, it didn’t stop when I lost my home or went to jail. That just made me feel hopeless, and when you feel more and more hopeless, it gets harder and harder to get out.
I was lucky. When I was arrested, I was able to have my charges dropped so I could move forward. I had understanding judges who worked with me and I eventually came out on the other side. I was able to move forward because I was treated with compassion, not punished further for my pain. But not everybody gets a break like this, and if we continue to go down the path of stricter and stricter penalties, fewer and fewer people will be able to get this chance to recover.
Let’s be the first state to break the cycle, to invest in methods that do work. Senator Sarlo, you have mentioned that your constituents want to see action. Are people in recovery and people who use drugs not also your constituents?
Those of us with direct experience facing addiction and substance use disorder want to work with you to make real changes. We want to figure out how we can work with our legislators to get ourselves and our loved ones access to quality, affordable healthcare that meets them where they are, widespread harm reduction services, and compassion to live healthier lives.
We are trying to end the overdose crisis because we can’t lose one more loved one, community member, or the chance to recover ourselves. We have lost so many people we love and we don’t want another family in New Jersey to experience the same thing. Not one more beautiful life cut short.