Pubdate: Sun, 14 Jul 2013
Source: Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)
Copyright: 2013 Newark Morning Ledger Co


After two years of work, the State Commission of Investigation last
week published an exhaustive study on the frightening spread of heroin
and painkiller addiction in New Jersey -- and somehow managed to miss
the central point.

The acute shortage of treatment is the heart of this problem, and the
report fails to even acknowledge it. Its action plan includes nothing
to address that problem.

To call this a disappointment doesn't quite capture it. This report
could actually do damage. Because it urges tougher penalties on
street-level dealers, a doubling down on the hard-nosed drug war
strategies that have monstrously failed by any objective measure.

After a generation of this, police say that heroin is cheaper and more
plentiful than ever on New Jersey streets. Deaths from overdoses of
heroin and painkillers are growing statewide by about 20 percent a
year, according to the latest data from the state Medical Examiner.

We have thrown thousands of non-violent dealers in prison, and they
have been replaced by thousands more. Most of them were addicts from
the start, according to prison surveys. And few received treatment.

And yet, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
estimates that 1 in 2 adults seeking treatment in New Jersey cannot
get it, and 2 in 3 teens. In Newark, addicts who want to go straight
are often placed on waiting lists. In rural parts of the state, the
shortage can be even worse.

The SCI report offers some useful dissection of the mechanics of the
drug trade. It shows how organized crime recruits shady doctors to
issue bogus painkiller prescriptions, and how painkillers can lead to
heroin, which is often cheaper. It urges some reasonable steps to
improve monitoring of prescription drugs.

But it is beyond belief that the SCI could miss the mark so widely on
the need for treatment. Its roots are in law enforcement, yes, but
even police and prosecutors have been pressing the case for more
treatment slots. Gov. Chris Christie, who served on the board of a
drug treatment center before becoming governor, has called for an end
to incarceration of non-violent drug addicts, and a shift to treatment

The SCI, somehow, missed all that.

* * *

The real challenge is finding the money to expand treatment slots
during a time of fiscal stress. In the long run it makes sense even
for the most hard-hearted. New Jersey spends roughly $50,000 a year to
hold an inmate in prison, and two-thirds of those released land back
behind bars within a few years. It is an expensive revolving door, and
it leaves tremendous human wreckage behind. Convicts are often
economically crippled for life, leaving them unable to support
families. Diverting non-violent addicts to treatment through drug
courts is cheaper and more effective.

The governor's budget this year increases spending on treatment by
$4.5 million to create 250 new slots for drug court offenders. That's
a step in the right direction, but a tiny one.

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), chairman of the health committee, is
planning hearings on a more ambitious down-payment. He proposes to
spend $50 million to expand the number of treatment slots, and to beef
up Medicaid reimbursements to providers. A reasonable reimbursement,
he hopes, would induce them to create more slots while allowing the
state to capture a 50 percent federal match.

The small surplus in this year's budget makes supplemental spending
risky. But if the governor shows interest, Vitale could build
bipartisan support around a long-term plan to turn this around.

The governor speaks with eloquence on this issue. He gets it. Soon
we'll see if he's willing to put his muscle behind it.
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