According to Rutgers Law School, New Jersey saw more than 3,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021, with the state mirroring a national trend of fatal overdose rates accelerating more quickly in Black and indigenous communities.

With an eye toward curbing those numbers but also ending the stigma and discrimination often tied to those punished for drug crimes, the law school has launched the Law Center for People Who Use Drugs, with a grant from Vital Strategies.

Andy Rothman, Rutgers Law School professor and managing attorney of Rutgers Law Associates, said the title of the center differentiates and distinguishes clients from the stigmatizing label of "drug user."

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Someone who can't quit smoking cigarettes wouldn't be called a "drug addict" even though nicotine is a drug, Rothman said, and if the center offered free legal services to anyone who used any kind of drug daily, he said every coffee drinker in New Jersey would sign up.

In a release, Vital Strategies technical advisor Dionna King said the drugs in question here, and what has been the standard response to people who use them in the United States, "won't help them become healthier, but it may lead to a lifetime of harmful consequences."

Important community partnerships

So the Law Center for People Who Use Drugs is establishing partnerships with other agencies that are already doing medical and social services for these people, and believe they can also benefit from legal services.

"They know their medical partner, and that handoff has been making this, I think, a really great success," Rothman said.

Those partners include Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, South Jersey AIDS Alliance, the Newark Community Street Team, and Black Lives Matter of Paterson, a city in which Rothman said the Rutgers team recently did some field work at a homeless encampment.

What people need to know, and what they may not know they need

What they found was that 100% of the people they encountered there did not have identification papers such as birth certificates, Social Security cards, or state IDs.

And Rothman said that's a problem when this population may not even know what they need to know, and need to have, in order to get help.

"You can't go to a methadone clinic unless you can prove who you are," he said. "You can't start a treatment program unless you can show some form of ID, because then there's no guarantee that you weren't there a half an hour before."

Fighting discrimination in housing and health care

Public defenders' offices are overburdened these days, according to Rothman, and so if someone who uses drugs has a trusted lawyer on their side, it really helps.

Because even if they are out of jail, or manage to avoid jail time altogether, there's still something on their record that could be problematic.

"There is discrimination against people who use drugs in housing," Rothman said. "There is discrimination against people in health care."

While Rothman said he cannot predict how the Law Center for People Who Use Drugs will evolve in the future, the work it aims to do in the present moment may prove crucial to many New Jerseyans and their families.

"Transforming that vision of people is the work of legal advocacy, is the work of impact litigation, and most importantly for us at this point is the direct service," he said.

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Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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