According to Rutgers Law School, there were more than 3,000 drug overdose deaths in New Jersey in 2021, with the state reflecting a national trend that fatal overdose rates are increasing faster in Black and Indigenous communities.
To curb those numbers, but also end the stigma and discrimination often associated with those prosecuted for drug crimes, the law school, with a grant from Vital Strategies, created the Law Center for People Who Use Drugs.
Andy Rothman, a professor at Rutgers Law School and managing counsel for Rutgers Law Associates, said the center’s title distinguishes and differentiates clients from the stigmatizing label of “drug user.”
Someone who can’t quit smoking wouldn’t be labeled a “drug addict,” even though nicotine is a drug, Rothman said, and if the center offers free legal advice to anyone who uses any type of drug on a daily basis, he said, everyone Coffee drinkers in New Jersey would sign up.
In a press release, Vital Strategies Technical Advisor Dionna King said the drugs in question and the standard response to people using them in the United States “won’t help them get healthier, but it can lead to life.” of harmful consequences.”
Important community partnerships
As such, the Law Center for People Who Use Drugs is building partnerships with other agencies that already provide medical and human services to these people and believe they can benefit from legal services as well.
“They know their medical partner, and that handover, I think, made this a really big success,” Rothman said.
Those partners include the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, the Newark Community Street Team and Black Lives Matter of Paterson, a city where Rothman said the Rutgers team recently did some fieldwork at a homeless camp.
What people need to know and what they may not know, they need
They found that 100% of the people they encountered there had no identification papers such as birth certificates, social security cards, or government IDs.
And Rothman said that’s a problem when maybe that population doesn’t even know what they need to know and have to get help.
“You can’t go to a methadone clinic if you can’t prove who you are,” he said. “You can’t start a treatment program if you can’t show ID because then there’s no guarantee you weren’t there half an hour earlier.”
Combating discrimination in housing and healthcare
According to Rothman, public defender’s offices are overwhelmed these days, and when someone who uses drugs has a trusted attorney by their side, it really helps.
Because even if they get out of jail or manage to avoid jail time altogether, there’s still something on their record that could be problematic.
“People who use drugs in housing are discriminated against,” Rothman said. “There is discrimination against people in healthcare.”
While Rothman said he couldn’t predict how the Law Center for People Who Use Drugs will evolve in the future, the work it is tasked with doing in the present moment could prove crucial for many New Jerseyers and their families.
“Transforming that vision of people is the work of legal representation, the work of litigation, and most important to us at this point is direct service,” he said.
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Patrick Lavery is a reporter and host for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at [email protected]
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