Inquirer Editorial: Drug treatment too hard to get in New Jersey

Posted: October 14, 2012

The mounting heroin and prescription-drug addiction problem among young people in New Jersey should be a call to action. It will only get worse unless the state makes drug treatment more available and affordable.

A task force appointed by Gov. Christie has learned plenty from experts and affected families who attended four hearings. Their heartbreaking stories cry out for changes.

There are not enough residential treatment programs to meet the need for those addicted to heroin, prescription opiates such as OxyContin, and antianxiety medications such as Xanax. Inadequate insurance coverage and poor follow-up care to prevent relapses are also problems.

The existing treatment programs fill up quickly with low-level offenders ordered by the courts to seek treatment. That leaves less than 20 percent of the resources for those not caught in the criminal justice system. With few options, many New Jersey drug addicts head to Florida, where treatment facilities don't have long waiting lists.

The need for treatment is sobering. Among drug abusers ages 17 to 25, admissions to treatment facilities for opiate addictions jumped from 72 in 2000 to 3,878 last year. There were 1,000 drug deaths in New Jersey last year, compared with 884 in 2010. It is not known how many deaths occurred while addicts were seeking treatment.

The drug scourge is easily seen in urban centers like Camden, where addicts feed their habit at open drug markets. But the suburbs have seen an alarming uptick in prescription-drug abuse among teens and young adults. The problem is nationwide, with 37,000 drug deaths a year.

Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has demonstrated that he recognizes the need for a different approach. He has already ordered mandatory treatment for all nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders. He should be commended for establishing a 15-member task force to study how the state can help save more lives. The panel should look at places like Florida's Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches, a treatment facility where counselors work with families and insurance companies to cover costs.

Drug addiction treatment is cheaper than jail. It offers hope for much better outcomes than the carnage that the so-called war on drugs has produced.

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