Anyone who has been paying attention to national news in recent years knows that the United States is in the middle of an opioid epidemic, with approximately 400,000 deaths as a result — and New Jersey hasn’t been spared, as the state has lost an increasing number of lives annually.
But to really understand the growth and roadmap of the epidemic in New Jersey, it’s important to step back and address how it began and what it looks like today.
The crisis is rooted in the over-prescription of legal painkillers. The National Governors Association reports that from 1999 to 2014, the number of prescription opioids just about quadrupled even though Americans were reporting the same amount of pain. This led to an increased amount of such medications being sold in the black market, creating a supply for patients who had become dependent on prescription painkillers after being prescribed them.
However, over the past decade, many more deaths were being attributed to heroin, and now, synthetic opioids. The American Society of Addiction Medicine has estimated that of those who become heroin users, 4 out of 5 had previously misused prescription painkillers. While the exact reason for the shift from prescription medication to heroin is unknown, it’s believed that it has to do with heroin often being a cheaper option and being easier to obtain. The shift from heroin to synthetic opioids like fentanyl has to do simply with the availability of such synthetics, which are much stronger than heroin and now, are often mixed with it.
The Epidemic in New Jersey
Despite being small geographically, New Jersey has a population of 8.8 million and has not been spared during the epidemic. In fact, each year the state is seeing a growing number of deaths associated with the opioid epidemic.
The State of New Jersey Department of Health reports that in 2017 (the most recent year with data available) 2,737 people died as a result of drug overdoses. The counties hit hardest that year were Cape May, Atlantic and Camden. When the data is broken down into deaths per 100,000, the county most affected has been Atlantic, averaging 75 deaths per 100,000 in 2016.
Data shows these numbers are only growing. In 2012, New Jersey as a whole was facing 13.8 deaths per 100,000 people. In 2017, that number had more than doubled to 30.8 per 100,000. Though official data isn’t yet available, the State of New Jersey Department of Health estimates that there were 3,118 deaths in 2018 and 3,021 deaths in 2019.
In January 2019, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal told NJ.com that despite attempts to curb the epidemic, the efforts were not proving successful.
“I think we have to acknowledge that, unfortunately, all of our efforts aren’t having the impact we want to see yet,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we stop. I’m optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction. I have to be.”
One reason for that, Grewal notes, is the entrance of fentanyl and other synthetics.
Though the opioid epidemic originated with prescription drugs, the landscape seems to be shifting. At the forefront of recent year’s opioid-related deaths are heroin, fentanyl, and fentanyl analogs, according to the New Jersey Reentry Corporation. In Ocean and Atlantic Counties, recent years have seen deaths at the hands of these drugs increasing greatly. This is reason for concern, as NJ Reentry claims “such trends suggest that the crisis has entered a newer and deadlier phase in which deaths are driven by synthetic opioids as opposed to prescription drugs.”
In addition to the emotional toll, the crisis is creating a financial strain on the state. NJ Reentry reports that annually, over $635 million is spent on inpatient and emergency room visits related to overdoses, and at least $145 million is spent for inmates incarcerated due to drug-related crimes.
Access to treatment is also costing the state, and data shows that such treatment often isn’t effective the first time. Data suggests that 90 percent of treatment costs are being spent on individuals who have already sought treatment without success. Employers are feeling the effects of the crisis, as New Jersey loses about $1.2 billion annually due to members of the workforce dying or being in treatment.
However, there are signs of hope amid the loss. Preliminary numbers for 2019 show a slight decrease in the number of deaths in the final months of 2019.
“These numbers are a reminder we must stay vigilant in our work,” said Murphy. “Each resident lost to the epidemic is a loved one gone too soon. This crisis requires us to pursue smart and compassionate policies laser-focused on solutions – increased availability of medication-assisted treatment, greater access to naloxone, education and outreach to residents in need, and enhanced social supports for those on the path to and working to maintain their recovery, like housing and employment services.”
As such, the state is continuing to allocate financial resources to curb the opioid epidemic in New Jersey. In early 2020, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced that $1.67 million worth of County Innovation Awards would be dispersed in order to fund projects related to opioid use disorder prevention, treatment and, recovery.