More than 3,000 people in New Jersey died of drug overdoses in 2021, and the state mirrored a national trend in which fatal overdose rates are rising more rapidly in Black and indigenous communities. This is according to research conducted at Rutgers Law School.
The law school has started the Law Center for People Who Use Drugs with funding from Vital Strategies to not just reduce those numbers but also to eradicate the stigma and discrimination typically associated with people penalized for drug crimes.
Rutgers Law School professor and Rutgers Law Associates managing attorney Andy Rothman said the center’s name helps keep clients from being stereotyped as “drug users.” Rothman claimed that if the center provided free legal services to everybody who used any form of substance regularly,
every coffee drinker in New Jersey would sign up, despite the fact that nicotine is a drug. Dionna King, a technical advisor at Vital Strategies, stated in a press release that the traditional American reaction to people who use these medications “won’t help them become healthier, but it may lead to a lifetime of adverse effects.”
Important Community Partnerships
As a result, the Law Center for People Who Use Drugs is collaborating with organizations that provide medical and social services to drug users since it believes those populations can also benefit from legal representation.
The success of the program has been due in large part to the fact that “they know their medical partner,” as Rothman put it. Among these organizations is the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation,
the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, the Newark Community Street Team, and Black Lives Matter of Paterson, where Rothman says the Rutgers team just conducted fieldwork at a homeless encampment.
What People Need to Know, and What They May Not Know They Need
They discovered that every single person they spoke to lacked basic forms of identification like birth certificates, Social Security cards, or state IDs. And according to Rothman, it’s an issue since a lot of people in that population might not have the information and resources they need to obtain treatment.
It’s against the rules to visit a methadone clinic without proper identification, he said. Because “there’s no guarantee that you weren’t there a half an hour earlier” without identification, “you can’t start a treatment program until you can show some type of ID.”
Fighting Discrimination in Housing and Health Care
Since, in Rothman’s opinion, public defenders’ offices are understaffed at the moment, it is crucial that drug users have a reliable attorney on their side. For the reason that having a criminal record might be an issue even if the offender has avoided incarceration.
According to Rothman, “there is discrimination against those who take drugs in housing.” It’s true, you hear it all the time: “People face prejudice in the health care system. Rothman has stated that he is unable to foresee the future of the Law Center for People Who Use Drugs,
but the work it wants to perform now may be vital to many New Jerseyans and their families. In his words, “the work of legal advocacy is the work of impact litigation, and most significant for us at this time is the direct service” (or “transforming that vision of people”).