NEWARK, NJ — New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal laid out the state’s strategic approach to managing the opioid crisis on Tuesday, driving home a commitment to treatment-based solutions in place of a system of criminal punishments for users.
Grewal delivered the morning keynote at a symposium hosted by Integrity House, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of addiction treatment, in collaboration with Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and Seton Hall Law School. Integrity House CEO Robert Budsock took stock of the nation’s opioid crisis, emphasizing the increasingly crucial role treatment is playing in creating lasting solutions to addiction.
“We want to work to help users put together the pieces of themselves that were broken by substance use,” Budsock said. “Treatment is effective, but only every one in 10 individuals will receive treatment.”
New Jersey has revolutionized its response to the opioid issue in an effort to increase the number of individuals who seek treatment, according to Grewal, who is visiting multiple towns to discuss administration priorities. He said that during his time as Bergen County prosecutor, the criminal justice system’s response to addiction was an ineffective, repetitive cycle of arrest, incarceration, short-term treatment and overdose.
Drug overdoses in New Jersey surpassed 3,000 in the last year, half of which were attributed to the opioid pain reliever fentanyl. The era of growing opioid deaths and crime has forced intervention from the state, which has implemented programming across its 21 counties that reinforces treatment and harm reduction over criminal sentences.
“Talking to mothers who have lost young people, it can’t help but change your view on how we respond to this particular crisis,” Grewal said. “Ten years ago, you wouldn’t see law enforcement, providers, counselors and academics coming together, but today that’s the norm.”
Rather than perform sweeps on individual users, Grewal has replicated the model he instituted in Bergen County, Operation Helping Hand, statewide. With $1 million in funding from the Department of Health, the initiative refocuses municipal police departments as touch points for treatment options. When users are arrested for narcotics, they are automatically given access to recovery specialists and other service providers at the police station or prosecutor’s office.
Grewal said the effort to reduce harm from opioids is no longer a law enforcement response, but a public health response. Data collected on Operation Helping Hand show that users are staying clean for longer periods of time.
While Grewal is leading the charge to do away with stigma and incarceration when it comes to users, the state is still targeting the sources of opioids from the street corner to doctors offices and executive suites. Monitoring programs are aggressively taking licenses away from and filing charges against physicians who indiscriminately provide opioids. New Jersey has the lowest recorded rate of opioid prescriptions as of 2017, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In response to drivers of addiction at the corporate level, Grewal added that the state has filed lawsuits against drugmakers Johnson & Johnson, and Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin. He said that the state would reject any possible settlement from Purdue Pharma.
“When I went after drug dealers in Brooklyn, I went after their houses, I went after their bank accounts, I went after their cars,” Grewal said. “Why should [Purdue Pharma] be treated any differently?”