Poll Shows Broad Reach of Drug Epidemic, Strong Support for Treatment

Lilo H. Stainton | December 7, 2017 | Health Care
Some analysts see findings as indication that people believe war on drugs has failed

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Half of New Jersey’s residents have been touched by opioid addiction, and that familiarity may contribute to a more compassionate approach to drug use and strong support for treatment — even if the treatment center is nearby.

Those were among researchers’ takeaways from a Public Mind Poll, released Wednesday by Fairleigh Dickenson University and its School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. The survey found 53 percent of adults view opioid addiction as a treatable disease, and more than eight in 10 believe addicts should be offered treatment instead of being fired from a job, or, if facing criminal charges, sent to jail.

Among the more surprising findings, one researcher said, was the limited “NIMBY (not in my backyard) effect.” Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they would welcome a treatment facility to their community; one in five said they would oppose the construction of a nearby treatment facility for those addicted to painkillers.

“This is interesting. I think most people before didn’t want anything to do with this,” said FDU pharmacy practice professor Anastasia Rivkin, who analyzed the poll. FDU does not have baseline data to show how exactly these viewpoints have evolved, she stressed, but support for local treatment facilities “is something surprising that you probably wouldn’t have seen twenty or thirty years ago.”

Touching many lives

Rivkin and her colleague, poll director Krista Jenkins, believe that the widespread impact of the opiate epidemic in New Jersey — which crosses many racial, ethnic, and other demographic boundaries — has opened people’s eyes to the power of the disease and the need for quality treatment. Tens of thousands of patients now seek treatment annually in the Garden State and nearly 2,000 people died from the disease last year, state records show.

“It’s just something that doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can get addicted,” Rivkin said. “I think that’s why it is hitting so close to home in our state.”

Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the results also reflect people’s frustration with the “war on drugs” and other historic drug policies, which favored incarceration over treatment. “They have seen friends and loved ones struggling to get help and being stigmatized, marginalized, and criminalized. The war on drugs has been a disaster and people have seen it for themselves,” Scotti said.

“I think the biggest takeaway from this poll is that the overwhelming majority of people in New Jersey understand that drug use should be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue,” Scotti added.

Medical not moral

Gov. Chris Christie has made responding to this crisis a priority during his last year in office, signing laws to expand access to treatment, redirecting state funding for additional support programs, and growing the state’s drug-court system, which enables nonviolent offenders with addictions to be sentenced to treatment instead of jail. The governor, who held his second-annual candlelight vigil on addiction Wednesday, has also stressed that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing.

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The FDU poll, which surveyed 875 Garden State residents by cellphone and landline in mid-October (with a 3.7 percent margin of error), showed the majority of respondents considered addiction a disease. But it also revealed that — when it comes to painkillers — nearly two-thirds of those polled blamed the individual for their abuse. Only one in five attributed the cause to genetics.

That ratio shifted when researchers asked about other chronic diseases. Genetics were faulted by nearly seven out of 10 surveyed when it came to a root cause for depression, and by nearly 60 percent when discussing diabetes. With alcoholism, more than 40 percent attributed the cause to genes, while more than 65 blamed self-control.

While some respondents may blame the patient on certain levels, Rivkin said it is important to note that most people now “do see it as a chronic disease with a high relapse rate and a need for quality treatment.”

Scotti, with the Drug Policy Alliance, agreed. “While there are some variations of opinion in response to different questions and related to party affiliation or demographics, clearly the vast majority of New Jerseyans understand that we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of this problem,” she said. “We need health-centered solutions, not more of the failed policies of harsh sentences and criminalizing people.”

The poll showed that women were more likely than men to consider prescription painkiller addiction a disease than a lack of self-control (57 percent to 48 percent), so were white respondents versus nonwhite subjects (56 percent to 43 percent), and Democrats when compared with Republicans (65 percent to 40 percent).

Women were also more likely than men to offer treatment to a drug addict, as opposed to recommending they be fired from a job (88 percent to 79 percent), as were Democrats versus Republicans (90 percent to 77 percent). But nonwhite respondents were more forgiving than white residents, in this case, preferring treatment over firing (91 percent to 82 percent).