Good afternoon to all the members of this critical advisory council. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and attention as we provide testimony today.
My name is Marleina Ubel, and I am a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a nonpartisan think tank focused on advancing economic, social, and racial justice for New Jersey residents.
New Jersey has been significantly impacted by overdose death, with devastating consequences for individuals, families, and communities across the state. The recent opioid settlements present a unique opportunity to channel substantial resources towards initiatives that can effectively tackle this crisis and prevent future harm.
As a representative of an organization that focuses on equitable, evidence-based policies, and in order to maximize the impact of these funds, I recommend the three following investment strategies:
Prioritize Harm Reduction Based Approaches: Decades of research and the experiences of people on the ground have consistently shown that harm reduction strategies are effective in reducing the harms associated with opioid use. It is crucial that a significant portion of the settlement funds be allocated towards expanding access to evidence-based harm reduction interventions that follow a comprehensive approach to drug user health and overdose risk reduction, such as: syringe access programs, community-based naloxone distribution, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT). These initiatives have proven to save lives, prevent the spread of infections, and provide critical support to individuals who use drugs.
Support Drug Decriminalization Efforts: The criminalization of drug use has failed to recognize it as a public health issue and has perpetuated systemic inequities, disproportionately impacting communities of color. A portion of the settlement funds should be directed towards supporting initiatives that aim to decriminalize drug possession, promote alternative non punitive responses, and invest in diversion programs that prioritize treatment and rehabilitation. I want to emphasize, here, that none of these funds should go to law enforcement. By shifting from a punitive approach to a public health-focused strategy, New Jersey can break the cycle of overdose death and reduce the negative consequences associated with criminalization.
Invest in Data Collection, Analysis, and Education: In order to effectively address the overdose crisis, it is imperative that we have accurate and timely data on its prevalence, trends, and impact. Allocating a portion of the settlement funds towards enhancing data collection systems, conducting comprehensive research, and promoting data sharing among relevant stakeholders will enable evidence-based decision-making and popular education. Misinformation around drug use perpetuates stigma and hinders progress.
This investment will also support ongoing monitoring and evaluation of initiatives, ensuring that resources are directed where they can have the greatest impact. New Jersey is unique among states in that the harsh drug laws passed in 1987 are still in effect today, as well as being the last state in the nation with a legal pathway to syringe access. In qualitative research, people seeking support from state-funded initiatives report that they are not able to receive support if they return to chaotic drug use — despite return to use being an expected symptom of a substance use disorder, and unconditional support being an evidence-based public health practice. All state initiatives should be thoroughly evaluated to ensure that they are guided by best practices and not replicating stigma and punishment for people who use drugs.
In conclusion, the allocation of opioid settlement funds presents New Jersey with an unprecedented opportunity to make a substantial difference in the lives and loved ones of people who use drugs. By prioritizing harm reduction approaches, supporting drug decriminalization efforts, and investing in data collection and analysis, the state can implement evidence-based policies that address the root causes and promote equitable outcomes.
Thank you for your time and attention to this critical matter.
 Bruce D. Stout and Bennett A. Barlyn, “The Human and Fiscal Toll of America’s Drug War: One State’s Experience,” Albany Law Review, 2015, 525-526. Jenna Mellor, “A War on Us: How Much New Jersey Spends Enforcing the War on Drugs,” New Jersey Policy Perspective.