Getting naloxone should be about to get much easier in New Jersey. Governor Phil Murphy (D) announced in his January 10 state-of-the-state address that a new program will enable anyone in the Garden State to access free doses of the opioid-overdose reversal drug from pharmacies.
According to a press release from the state government, the program will launch “soon,” and will be funded with money from federal grants. Residents aged 14 and up will be able to go to participating pharmacies and get a two-dose naloxone nasal spray kit—for free, anonymously, without a prescription, and without providing a reason for accessing the medication. According to the release, the move is “part of the Murphy Administration’s ongoing efforts to combat the opioid crisis and save lives by getting life-saving naloxone into as many hands as possible.”
Harm reduction advocates in New Jersey have welcomed the move, though one noted that at this early stage, it remains to be seen how the program will play out in practice.
In 2021, 3,124 drug-related deaths were recorded in New Jersey. The figure for 2022 is expected to show a modest decrease. Any decline is uneven, however, with an increase shown among Black residents aged 55 and over. An estimated 28 percent of people who died in 2022 were Black, even though Black people comprise only 12 percent of the state’s population. And the total toll remains far higher than in previous years; it wasn’t until 2016 that the state exceeded 2,000 annual deaths.
The department is “working and encouraging more pharmacies to join so we will have widespread participation soon.”
New Jersey’s government has held naloxone “giveaways” in years past. Since 2018, the state’s Department of Human Services has distributed around 186,000 two-dose naloxone kits. And last year, 54,000 of the kits were distributed, according to the press release.
But until now, naloxone has been available through pharmacies only with a prescription, according to an email to Filter from the New Jersey Department of Human Services. Now, some pharmacies have already started to participate in the program, and the department is “working and encouraging more pharmacies to join so we will have widespread participation soon,” the email stated.
Caitlin O’Neill, director of harm reduction services with the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, was glad to hear of the decision. They said that the organization has been advocating for this change since 2018. Since people previously needed both a prescription and the money to pay for naloxone—either out-of-pocket or using insurance—the move is “taking down a major barrier,” they said.
“We’re thrilled,” O’Neill told Filter. “I mean, we have been advocating for this for years. One of the central themes that brought the working group together that eventually became the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition was the lack of naloxone access in New Jersey.”
However, they added that they don’t know for sure how the new program will develop, and are waiting to see. For instance, pharmacies can choose whether to participate, meaning that some may not.
“For people who’ve been, you know, discouraged because they can’t afford the price of it in a pharmacy, this is amazing.”
The New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, O’Neill noted, regularly distributes naloxone to individuals and groups across the state, but also trains them in its use and the finer points of overdose reversal—such as identifying when polysubstance use is a consideration. O’Neill said that freely available naloxone at the pharmacy would not replace the value of a trained person—someone who regularly interacts with people who use drugs in their own community—using the medicine to reverse overdoses.
All the same, “we do think that for the people who utilize pharmacies, this is wonderful,” O’Neill emphasized. “And for people who’ve been, you know, discouraged because they can’t afford the price of it in a pharmacy, this is amazing.”
Going forward, they said, the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition hopes to see further policy changes in the state. For instance, last year, the state government made exceptions to its laws against possession of drug “paraphernalia,” and allowed people to carry fentanyl test strips and syringes. O’Neill said that this change should be expanded to include snorting and smoking gear, and “really anything that’s used for safer drug use,” to protect people from arrest and prosecution—threats that can dissuade people from adopting safer practices.
“We’re hoping for as few barriers as possible,” they said.