By summer’s end, every New Jersey resident will be legally permitted to purchase the life-saving opioid antidote naloxone without a prescription. And they can then administer it to anyone they believe is suffering from a drug overdose, or share it with others to use on themselves or another individual struggling with addiction.

That’s the crux of one of the half-dozen bills Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law last week to benefit New Jerseyans battling substance-use disorders, as well as their friends and family members. Other measures require state-regulated insurance companies to cover the cost of the naloxone, which health officials hope to make more readily accessible at drug stores, schools and other public facilities, and prompt the state Division of Consumer Affairs to publish a retail price list for the various forms available to the public.

Treatment advocates are hailing those new laws as well as several recent changes to federal regulation designed to reduce the stigma around addiction, close gaps in treatment and expand access to critical medications, including naloxone and buprenorphine, a highly effective intervention for opioid addiction.

The developments come as drug-related deaths are on the rise in New Jersey and nationwide — fueled in part by the grief, job and housing loss, and economic strain that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic.

New Jersey officials announced in March that 3,046 people had died of drug-related causes in 2020, a slight increase over 2019. While overdose fatalities here had climbed steadily since 2014, officials reported a small but measurable decline between 2018 and 2019. But then COVID-19 hit and substance abuse — and related deaths — began to rise again, up 17% over the previous year by July 2020, NJ Spotlight News found.

At the bill signing last week Murphy said the troubling increase in fatal drug deaths continued into 2021. State data shows nearly 1,100 people had died of overdoses by April 30, a rate that Murphy said outpaces the fatalities recorded for that period in each of the past four years.

“We have got to bring these fatalities down. We are so far from the end zone,” Murphy said at the July 2 bill signing.

Expanding access to life-saving medications

“Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, with opioids being the most common drug, causing approximately 70% of all drug overdose deaths,” state Sen. Joe Vitale, a longtime champion of addiction services who sponsored several of the bills.

“Many of these lives could have been saved with the use of opioid antidotes,” the Middlesex County Democrat added. “However; there is currently only a limited amount of individuals authorized to administer these antidotes. These new laws will expand who can deliver antidotes to a larger group of individuals, which will be crucial in saving countless lives from overdose.”

The state Department of Human Services, which oversees addiction services, has held several naloxone giveaways in recent years, distributing some 130,000 doses to the public at pharmacies and other sites. State records show nearly 4,400 doses of the antidote — also known by the brand-name Narcan — were administered in the first four months of this year alone.

“We shouldn’t wait for another special program. We should make this access year-round,” Murphy said.

Murphy and officials pledge expanded access to treatment in 2020 and free supplies of overdose antidote for police departments and libraries, among other initiatives

Another law Murphy approved would enable trained paramedics to carry and administer buprenorphine, which can help block opioid cravings, following the use of naloxone to reverse an overdose. Experts note that drug users often develop intense cravings after being given the OD antidote and this can lead them to use drugs again when they are particularly vulnerable.

New Jersey became the first state in the nation to permit some responders to administer the medication under a directive from former state Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal and Murphy’s action codifies this concept in state law.

“The bills signed today ensure that cost, location, and stigma never stand in the way of naloxone access for people who use drugs, people who used to use drugs, and our loved ones,” said Caitlin O’Neill, a co-founder of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, which advocates for treatment and other services, including clean-needle programs.

Issue in Atlantic City

The coalition is currently working to protect services at the Oasis Drop-In Center in Atlantic City, which operates a syringe exchange and provides health screenings and other services in a facility run by the South Jersey AIDS Alliance.

City officials have raised concerns about the location of the center — one of just seven programs in the state where IV drug users can get clean needles, referrals and other support — in the resort town’s tourism district. A spokesperson for Murphy told NJ Spotlight News in mid-June that the governor is “committed to ensuring that Atlantic City and area residents continue to have access to these evidence-based and life-saving services.”

City council to vote on ordinance in two weeks

Murphy also said the state budget for the fiscal year that began this month invests tens of millions of dollars in an “interdepartmental, data driven, compassionate approach” to addressing the state’s opioid epidemic, which sends more than 70,000 New Jerseyans to treatment each year. Another bill he signed last week will enhance the state’s data collection by permitting school districts to administer student health surveys, with parental permission.

In late June New Jersey officials joined federal health and drug-enforcement representatives in Atlantic City to highlight the success of a mobile opioid treatment program created through a public partnership with the John Brooks Recovery Center that provides buprenorphine and other services to individuals in the county jail. The treatment van is one of only 13 mobile programs nationwide, according to the DEA, which used the event to announce it had streamlined the registration process to spur the growth of new initiatives.

“We’re very excited by the DEA’s announcement because here in New Jersey we know this works,” said Sarah Adelman, acting commissioner of the state Human Services Department, which oversees addiction services.  “Medication-assisted treatment works, and treatment is often most effective when it is brought directly to the people who need it. With this new rule removing a critical barrier to treatment for individuals with substance use disorder, we look forward to seeing mobile treatment programs expand across New Jersey and the country.”

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