- Harrison: Combating opiate addiction




THE SCOURGE of opiate addiction has been well-documented on the pages of The Record, and the too-typical pattern of addiction is well-known to many suburban parents throughout the state. A young person, often a teenager, is introduced to prescription opiate painkillers – either because of an injury or recreationally. The high from these painkillers is swift and addictive, and all too often a downward spiral ensues. Addicts use any mechanism possible to get more painkillers – raiding parents' and friends' medicine cabinets, burglarizing neighbors' homes, buying them on the street, until eventually the cost of such addiction becomes unsustainable. It is then, typically, that someone introduces them to the cheap alternative to prescription painkillers – heroin – and the $500 a day habit becomes less expensive and more lethal.

This problem is the nation's fastest-growing drug problem and has made its presence felt in cities, in suburbia and in rural areas throughout the country, across races, income levels and other demographic traits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prescription drug abuse and heroin addiction have become an epidemic that causes about 20,000 deaths annually in the United States. Since 2004, Camden, Middlesex, Ocean and Monmouth counties had the highest number of overdose deaths last year, while Bergen, Camden, Cumberland, Gloucester, Middlesex, Monmouth and Warren counties had the highest percentage increases from 2013.

Assemblyman Joe Lagana, D-Paramus, is attempting to break this all-too-common cycle. Last month, Lagana introduced A-4760, the Parent Notification Bill, which would require doctors and other opiate prescribers to explain to parents the risks of taking such drugs when providing children with a prescription for opiates. The prescribers would also have to discuss appropriate alternatives to the painkillers and the risks of dependency. When parents decide to allow the prescription to be written for their child, doctors would then be required to discuss the signs of opiate dependency so that parents recognize the symptoms as dependency is developing.

According to Lagana, "The epidemic of opiate addiction poses a big threat to our youth. This is why I am proud to sponsor this legislation and will do everything I can to make sure we stop addiction before it begins."

Prevent Opiate Abuse, an organization that is seeking to create a national model in providing governmental and non-governmental ways to prevent abuse of prescription opiate based painkillers in New Jersey, supports Lagana's bill and so should the Legislature. Other measures that Prevent Opiate Abuse advocates believe should be included in New Jersey's wheelhouse include adopting some of the laws that have been tested in New York, including a state law that would make a patient's complete controlled-substance history available to prescribers and pharmacists, requiring real-time input into the data base of all prescriptions when they are dispensed and requiring that prescribers check the database before prescribing a controlled substance.

They also call for mandating that prescribers submit opiate prescriptions directly to the pharmacist electronically, thus eliminating paper prescriptions, which can be easily forged.

Prevent Opiate Abuse also would like to see long-acting opioids, such as oxycodone and oxymorphone, banned from New Jersey hospital emergency rooms – as they are in New York City – and a limitation of prescriptions of any opioids to no more than three days.

The organization also advocates for increased education in public schools about the dangers of opiate and heroin abuse, and a reassessment of the State Board of Medical Examiners policy on prescribing opioids, and the Legislature should examine these policies to assess their potential effectiveness in eliminating an epic public health crisis in New Jersey.

Prevent Opiate Abuse is also committed to supporting a broader Patient Notification bill (S-2366), sponsored by state Sens. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, and Joe Vitale, D-Woodbridge, which would require prescribers to discuss alternative and risks of dependency with adults being prescribing opiate painkillers as well. In 2014, the measure passed in the state Senate, and it needs to be passed by the Assembly Health Committee before being considered by the full Assembly.

A spokesman for the Health Committee's chairman, Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Delran, would not comment on the Assemblyman's position on the issue, but the measure was not included on the Health Committee's agenda, which was released Friday. Many physicans' interest groups opposed the measure, arguing that it "puts the state in the middle of this physician-patient-parent discussion by the state scripting this very personal and very individual conversation and adding additional forms and paperwork for patients, ultimately interfering in the physician-patient relationship."

This position ignores the reality of how some teenagers are introduced to these dangerous drugs, and members of the Assembly should demand that Conaway post this measure. Think about it: There are written warnings required for riding roller coasters, eating undercooked meat and removing the tags from pillows. We should require doctors to tell patients that these gateway painkillers are addictive. We owe it to the 5,267 New Jerseyans who have died of heroin overdoses.

Brigid Callahan Harrison is professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, where she teaches courses in American government. A frequent commentator on state and national politics, she is the author of five books on American politics. Like her on Facebook at Brigid Callahan Harrison. Follow her on Twitter @BriCalHar.