In Trenton, learning how to accept drug users and keep them from harm

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

It’s called harm reduction and it’s New Jersey’s strategy for mitigating the dangers of drug injection.

Hundreds of counselors, clinicians, and people touched by addiction on Wednesday attended a five-hour workshop hosted by the New Jersey Department of Health at the Trenton War Memorial.

They were told that a key to the concept is to remove the stigma attached to injection drug use.

“We need to show all residents, especially those who inject drugs, that addiction is not a moral failing,” said Judith Persichilli, the state’s acting health commissioner, “that they are worthy of life, they’re worthy of love, they’re worthy of care, and they’re worthy of access to vital resources.”

The centerpieces of the strategy are “harm-reduction centers” — places that offer drug users a safe, friendly, welcoming environment. The goal is to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C from unsanitary syringes, building on the needle-exchange program first authorized by the state in 2006.

Today, there are seven state-funded harm-reduction centers, in Asbury Park, Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, and Trenton.

Like the rest of the country, New Jersey has struggled in recent years with a sharp spike in the number of people using — and dying from using — drugs, most notably opioids. Some 3,000 New Jerseyans died from drug-related deaths in 2018, and the mounting body count spans the entire state.

“Harm reduction is a proven strategy to combat overdoses and the spread of communicable disease and it really meets people where they are,” said Christopher Menschen, an assistant state health commissioner. “So it acknowledges their current drug use, accepts them for who they are and where they are and kind of brings them in the fold in a non-judgmental way.”

Those who gathered in Trenton Wednesday appeared to have already gotten the message.

“Harm reduction is a good thing,” said Rev. Leslie Robin Harrison, pastor of the Mt. Zion AME Church. “Needle exchange is a good thing. Safe injection spaces are a good thing. That’s not going to mess up your neighborhood.

Your neighborhood is already messed up,” she added, with a laugh.

Participants talked about the many forms drug use takes.

“Some people are drawn to uppers,” said Sheila Vakharia of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Some people are drawn to downers. Some people like using a mix. Some people like using one after the other. Some use one on one day. Some use one a year later.”

Needle exchanges made slow progress during the Chris Christie years. But Gov. Phil Murphy is committed to the harm-reduction strategy, health department officials said.

Drug counselors talked about how they were drawn into the movement. Two in particular mentioned family members they had lost.

“I had 10 years earlier lost my brother to overdose and had no idea there was such a concept as harm reduction that might have helped him at some point in his life,” said Babette Richter, a registered nurse who is part of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance.

“I can’t help bring my brother back,” said Henry Godette, harm-reduction coordinator with the North Jersey Community Research Initiative. “But I may be able to bring yours.”

The state Health Department is looking to expand the program into an eighth New Jersey town, and looking to normalize the idea of providing substance users with clean needles, plus support — and understanding.