Friday, January 16, 2015

Christie’s Speech Offers Promise on Addiction; Now Comes the Hard Part

 Governor Chris Christie’s fifth State of State was expected to signal his run for the presidency, and that it most certainly did. But it also concentrated on addiction in considerable detail. While the governor touched on basic Republican themes of smaller, more efficient government and tax breaks for corporations, he devoted a quarter of the speech to steps taken to date to address addiction (drug court) and what will be done in that area in the coming year.

His emphasis on addiction being a disease, a statement that has echoed throughout his tenure, was sounded again in his State House address. That New Jersey’s governor, let alone a presumptive candidate for president, would speak at length on this issue is something addiction advocates would not have believed. Beyond the state’s borders, his giving so much of a speech that confirmed his national aspirations could well mean this subject will getting a hearing during the Republican primary season. 

The governor spoke several times of ensuring the level of treatment provided is appropriate to the patient. He described a system “utilizing services that don’t actually work” for people. This is a vital point about addiction that gets heard far too seldom. Having treatment suited to the individual relates both having the best chance of having a good outcome and to making the best use of limited resources. NCADD-NJ has advocated use of the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s Placement criteria in diagnosing a patient to ensure he or she is placed in the right care level.

Critics of the governor’s speech were quick to note that treatment dollars are greatly lacking in New Jersey, as they are elsewhere, and the governor was vague at best in identifying how the treatment would be paid for. He talked about replacing a “bureaucracy of options” with a single point of entry approach and that, by coordinating programs and services, the state will “maximize resources.”
Yet Assemblyman Herb Conaway, who is a doctor, observed that “Whenever something is underserviced in healthcare, it is most of the time because there is too little money going to it.”

The governor has prided himself on being an atypical politician. For him to truly stand apart, he needs to acknowledge that in and of itself efficiency with existing resources will not be adequate to meet the addiction care shortfall seen in New Jersey. If and when he takes that difficult step of putting principle and funding behind his words, he will lift more lives out of addiction and at the same time he may lift his chances for 2016.

By: Daniel J Meara
Public Information Manager

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

NJ Senate Should Look Once, and Think Twice, at a Misguided Heroin Bill

I saw someone’s funny company tee shirt the other day. It read, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” A similar sounding motto might well be descriptive of the NJ Assembly’s approach to mitigating the state’s opiate crisis, “The punishment will continue until you get well.” In a shocking display of willful ignorance and inverted logic, the Assembly last month voted 66 yes, 2 no, 5 abstain and 7 not present, to increase criminal sentences for heroin.

The bill’s objective is to permit prosecutions for drug distribution (and intent to distribute) to proceed using a lower standard of “units” as opposed to the current “weight.” While the stated goal is to facilitate the imprisonment of “drug kingpins,” the result will be more addicts who are hoarding heroin for later use, getting locked up. Merely re-classifying someone a “distributor,” rather than a “possessor,” will do next to nothing in enhancing any effort to round-up heroin sellers. Instead, the list of negative consequences of this measure is as long as your arm.

  • The drug laws have already exacerbated the racial disparate impact that is rife in our criminal justice system while this proposal will largely just place more black and brown people behind bars.
  • It is well understood that jails are the least effective and most expensive method in dealing with addictions. This legislation would put more folks in to detention and out of treatment. Speaking of cost, the Dept. of Corrections estimates this proposed law will incarcerate an extra 179 inmates to the tune of up to $7.7m. Meanwhile, the Office of Legislative Services’ projection suggests that that figure is too low! The OLS, however, did not weigh in with its’ own fiscal impact number.
  •  Certain persons convicted of drug possession offenses are able to receive General Assistance (welfare) benefits and emergency housing help upon release from prison. People with drug distribution charges are ineligible for these programs.
  • Certain persons convicted of drug possession offenses can participate in a drug court program. People with drug distribution charges are ineligible. Thus, some people who might have benefited from the treatment discipline of drug court, will instead become wards of the state.

So, A.783, and its’ companion bill in the Senate (S.211), represents bad fiscal policy, bad corrections policy, bad drug treatment policy, bad social and racial policy, and bad prisoner reentry policy.

One can only hope that the Senate will look at this wrong-headed legislation with a better informed and refined thinking.  

Ed Martone
Policy Analyst