Shining a Light on Drug Prevention Education

By Briana Vannozzi

If “just saying no” had been possible, Dan Nelson and the 2.3 million U.S. residents in addiction recovery would have chosen that path.

“I was born with the disease of addiction. No prevention or education could have changed that fact,” he said.

The disconnect with prevention education is one of the leading factors in the opioid epidemic.

“I’ve been in this field for 30 years and when I started a lot of our work was really from the gut. We had some science guiding us, but prevention was really kind of new at that point,” said New Jersey Prevention Network Executive Director and CEO Diane Litterer.

Litterer oversees New Jersey’s Prevention Network. The agency and its efforts have come under scrutiny from the Governor’s Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. The latest reports show education has been ineffective, even though New Jersey has created federally lauded systems like Operation Drop Box, the prescription monitoring and take back programs.

“I can’t stand here and say that every family is going through a strengthening families program or that every sixth, seventh, and eighth-grader student is going through a life skills program because there’s not enough funding and attention where all of the kids are going through that, but those programs are available and hopefully with a loud enough voice we can get more of those good programs happening,” Litterer said.

What is the missing piece to our substance abuse prevention efforts?

“I think it’s accurate data collection,” said Frank Greenagel. “Everything we should be doing should be measured. I want to know what we’re doing and how we’re measuring it and then we’re going to partition money in that way.”

Tracking success is murky territory. Many communities are relying on municipal alliances, like the one led by Mahwah’s chief of police or street teams to educate their youth. The best efforts so far have been through town meetings and pamphlets mailed to homes.

“When you talk to them, they’ll take from the perspective of ‘don’t do drugs’. You can talk to them and say, you know, I was reading up on this and alcohol can do X, Y, Z to your body and it can affect the performance that you have,” said ADAPT Essex County Senior Coordinator Joel Torres.

Assemblyman Joseph Lagana is introducing four bills to give law enforcement and those on the front lines extra tools.

“We can’t just introduce legislation and say hey let’s see if this works. It’s not the right way to do things. The legislation has to be based off what they tell us is the right way to do it. What one bill, for instance, would require, is continuing education for doctors,” he said.

Recognizing there’s no silver bullet, it will take all hands on deck to educate the public.

For more stories that are part of the initiative Healthy NJ: New Jersey’s Drug Addiction Crisis, click here.