Harm reduction advocates gather in Newark to bring awareness to drug overdoses

By: - August 31, 2022 6:40 pm

A man searches through an installation that contains pictures and stories of hundreds of people who died from drug overdoses. (Courtesy of Luceo Images)

As the supervisor of an EMS team out of University Hospital, Will Massenberg has witnessed hundreds of overdose deaths in Newark. 

But he also had to deal with loss firsthand after his uncle died in 2005, followed by his brother in 2017, and then his sister in 2021 — all lost to the opioid epidemic. 

“It affects everybody. Every day that this crisis keeps happening, it’s a reminder of my brother and my sister,” Massenberg said Wednesday. “It happens a lot in this city.” 

Massenberg was at the Newark Public Library as officials unveiled a digital mosaic to mark International Overdose Awareness Day. The traveling memorial will head to Michigan and Pennsylvania later in the year, and will stop in four other states heavily impacted by the opioid crisis and overdose deaths. 

More than 3,100 New Jerseyans died in 2021 of suspected drug overdoses, up 230% from a decade ago. While rates have remained largely steady among white residents, Black and Latino residents continue to see high rates of drug-related deaths. Across the country, overdoses led to 107,000 deaths last year. 

The Newark installation, sponsored by Vital Strategies, is part of a nationwide campaign to support harm reduction by providing test strips for fentanyl , safer use supplies like clean needles, and medication for opioid withdrawal. The mosaic is intended to communicate just how many people — from all walks of life and of all ages and races — have lost their lives to the opioid epidemic. 

Amesika Nyaku, a physician-scientist and trustee at the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, stressed there are additional policy changes state officials can make to help prevent drug overdoses. She pointed to affordable housing and increased access to health care, education, and job opportunities, plus investment in communities that have suffered due to the war on drugs and opioid abuse. 

New Jersey is receiving $641 million from settlements with opioid distributors and makers, with the money being split evenly between the state and 241 local municipalities. The settlement agreements are between the state and Johnson & Johnson, McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen. 

Nyaku also called on state officials, including Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli and Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman, who both spoke at the event, to roll out more syringe exchanges and increase access to methadone. 

“We’ve made major strides here in New Jersey to move and change policy, and now it’s about seeing that effective use of it,” she said. “With the overdoses that are happening in our communities every day, these are the solutions. This harm education saves lives.” 

A law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in January allows the state Health Department to approve new safe-syringe sites to help people seek treatment and avoid infections or diseases from sharing needles. He also signed legislation decriminalizing possession of syringes and creating local overdose fatality review teams to look at drug-relation deaths.

Mayor Ras Baraka, Solomon Middleton-Williams of the Newark Community Street Team, and Dionna King with Vital Strategies’ overdose prevention program also joined the event. 

Over the next 10 days, Newark will host free naloxone training with the city’s community street team and host survivors and activists for discussions at the library, located at 5 Washington St.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.