Addiction in New Jersey: I have no f—ing hope left
I'm Jay Lassiter, a former IV drug user who found the grace to amend my life. For 12 episodes of "Heroin Uncut: The Truth About the Crisis," I've been sharing not only my own stories, but those of people on the frontlines of our statewide battle against addiction.
I've spoken to prosecutors, to journalists, to doctors — and most importantly, to addicts themselves throughout this special podcast and video series from New Jersey 101.5.
The sense of desperation around everything we're doing wrong, or barely beginning to consider doing right, is palpable.
It was originally my intention to end this series on a hopeful note. I wanted to distill all the hopeful signs into a positive rallying cry to better confront New Jersey's insatiable appetite for opiates like heroin and prescription drugs. But here’s the thing: I'm not hopeful. Not even a little bit.
There were 2,000 opiate overdose deaths in NJ in 2016, the last year for which we’ve crunched the numbers. With the emergence of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, 2017’s numbers should skyrocket. Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than heroin. And it’s not that hard to get online either. That's the sort of sobering reality that robs me of hope for our current situation. I’m hopeless and I’m scared.
Mostly, I’m afraid for anyone already hooked on opiates. Their prospects are dim. So I’m afraid for their families. Especially for their mothers — like Carter Stone's, who saw him make one poor choice that ended his life. And I’d be lying if I told you otherwise. Fake optimism is not constructive coping skill. If I hype up our chances, that robs you of the ability to cope. And to plan accordingly. If I can’t give you hope I can at least give you honesty.
When it comes to New Jersey is opiate crisis, I’m afraid of what’s to come. I literally lose sleep over it. I fear that our collective lack of empathy is a mess only by our lack of a common approach to this disease. And yes, it is a disease.
There’s absolutely no appetite in New Jersey for harm reduction strategies like syringe access for IV drug users. I understand why that sort of thing is controversial. But I also understand that IV drug use has led to a jaw-dropping increase in HIV transmission — and hepatitis as well. Both are preventable. Both are incredibly expensive to treat. Consequently, everyone touched by New Jersey’s opiate crisis is as risk
A clean syringe cost 50 cents. A year of treatment for hepatitis costs about $20,000. Think of the charity care costs we could have saved if we didn’t have our head up our ass about it. There’s a cost to our judgment.
Maybe you can’t sympathize with a drug user who does sex work to buy drugs. Or the man who pays for sex. But what about that man’s wife? When your husband’s sleeping with a drug-addicted hooker, you have enough problems without being HIV-positive. That’s why we have needle exchange: for the innocent bystanders.
I read your emails and messages that giving a user a clean syringe sends a message that we approve of their drug use, that giving drug users a safer option sends the wrong message to society. By that logic, why even reverse an overdose with Narcan? Can you imagine if a child came to the emergency room with alcohol poisoning and the doctor told the child’s father, “I’m sorry I can’t help your child because that would send the wrong message about underage drinking.”
It’s unthinkable. Needle exchange does send a message, however — a powerful message that we care about IV drug users and we want them to have the best chance to recovery. It also says we care about the taxpayers who foot the charity care bill. Ironically, the same voices who can’t find a dollar for a clean syringe for an IV drug user have no problem paying $50,000 a year to lock somebody up.
Harm reduction is fiscally prudent. Empathy in this case is fiscally prudent. Our current judgmental approach is not.
Thus my pessimism and lack of hope.
There are pockets of the state where we’re getting this right. We have highlighted the efforts Ocean County, where cops know we can’t arrest our way out of this. Likewise, New Jersey’s attorney general is all aces going after big pharma and doctors for overprescribing.
But prevention? What about that? We’re offering nothing. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times — an ounce of prevention is worth 1,000 trips to rehab. And yet, here we are, fixated on symptoms instead of the root cause. When it comes to addiction, we simply don’t react until the horse has left the barn.
If being hopeful was my job, I’d be fired. But my job is to be honest. And convincing.
Watch this week's final episode of Heroin Uncut above, or listen below.
And as always, the podcast edition of this week's Heroin Uncut is available on iTunes/Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or the New Jersey 101.5 app.
Revisit past episodes of Heroin Uncut below:
• Addiction is a disease — Why this addict is absolutely sure —Think addiction to drugs is something other than a disease? How about alcohol dependence? It’s an ongoing debate in the media, around kitchen tables, and online — especially with with New Jersey's opiate crisis getting more and more out of control.
• How to use Narcan — Learn in 3 minutes — For the last few months, New Jersey residents have been able to purchase naloxone — the opioid antidote better known by the brand name Narcan — without a prescription, even at pharmacies that don't have their own medical directors. The broad availability is just one aspect of the state's ongoing fight against heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkiller addiction.
• Rehab, jail and hard truths: What addicts say we don’t understand — Vince, Erik and Brian are on their way to recovery — with help. They also know well the way the systems meant to help them fall short, but with change could bring more addicts back from the brink.
• Marijuana vs. opioids — One is illegal, the other is killing us — has always believed that maybe, just maybe, if we regulated prescription opiates half as zealously as we regulate medical cannabis, we’d avoid a world of hurt.
• Taking note on addiction — hard lessons learned by NJ journalists. Everyone's talking about the opioid crisis — because it's everywhere. But too few of those making the important decisions and trying to bring light to the problem really understand it.
• Carter Stone was a Jersey boy. And when he died of a heroin overdose at the age of 32, his grieving family was predictably distraught — like any other family in their position would be. But what’s different about this family is the message it left behind.
• The heroes and villains of New Jersey’s opioid crisis — New Jersey’s heroin crisis did not create itself. Big Pharma, greedy lobbyists, and dimwitted policy makers created the perfect conditions for addiction to take hold and to thrive.
• How Narcan, a great cop and a convicted killer saved my life — No conversation so far has stood out more than then one Jay had with Anthony — a recovering addict who recounted his experience being revived with Narcan.
• The Opioid Industrial Complex — This is who gets rich off your addiction
— Acknowledging that addiction is big business helps clear up what’s really driving New Jersey’s opioid crisis:
• Narcan is saving lives — and that’s bad news — Narcan is an important tool in our war against opiates. But our reliance on it means things have already gone too far:
• Needle exchanges — Why NJ must give drug users syringes right now — An uncomfortable solution? You bet. It’s also why host HIV-positive and drug-recovering host Jay Lassiter doesn’t have hepatitis today:
• Heroin Uncut: Defining New Jersey’s drug problem — Our language about drugs is a jumbled mess. If we don’t understand the problem, we can’t fix it:
New episodes are released every Saturday.
Heroin Uncut is sponsored by Carrier Clinic, providing behavioral healthcare services in New Jersey since 1910.