New Jersey’s Democrats have controlled the state Legislature for years, which ensures that their bills are the ones sent to the governor, who now is also a Democrat.
Republican legislators can get a little leverage by supporting a Democratic faction on an issue or can criticize the Democrats, but if they’ve got ideas on benefiting their constituents or the state as a whole, they’ve got to work with their political opponents to get anything done.
One good approach is to focus on problems of broad bipartisan interest, such as the fight against the addiction crisis.
Now in the upper house this term, Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, has worked with his Democratic peers on four proposed laws that would extend the ways families, friends, the courts and businesses can help those at various stages of their addiction battles.
Brown has been a leader on one of the hottest topics in opioid crisis — compelling addicts to take at least the initial steps to recovery. He introduced a bill in 2014 to permit involuntary commitment for substance abuse, before the seriousness of the crisis became obvious to everyone.
Now the widespread use of naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses is saving lives, but too often the same lives. In the past three years, more than 12,000 people overdosing on opioids were administered naloxone in New Jersey. Yet overdoses still killed 2,100 people last year. A Boston hospital study published last fall found that one in 10 overdose victims who had been revived with nalaxone died within a year.
Terrified families and friends of addicts see the danger but if they can’t get through the drug’s hold on the victim, there’s not much they can do. Brown told The Press recently that when he was a municipal court judge and prosecutor, parents and family members would “plead with me to send their child to jail because they felt he was going to die if he stayed on the streets.”
Instead of reintroducing his bill, he talked with Sen. Richard Codey, the veteran Livingston Democrat, and co-sponsored his similar proposal for involuntary commitment of substance abusers. It would allow relatives and friends to petition a court to commit a loved one to treatment, with the involvement of a physician and a psychiatrist.
Importantly, it would also allow a court to order addicts who pose an imminent danger to themselves or others into a hospital for 72 hours — which could be enough time to convince some who have dodged death with naloxone to consider starting rehabilitation.
Brown also a month ago introduced, again with Democratic partners, three other anti-addiction bills. One would extend eligibility for drug court — which focuses on treatment rather than punishment for non-violent crimes — to addicts convicted of low-level aggravated assaults or with convictions more than 5 years old. Another would extend the ability of municipal court judges to commit people for substance abuse treatment, which they currently have under the Alcohol Treatment and Rehabilitation Act, to drug offenders.
And with Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, Brown is sponsoring a bill to allow those who have completed the drug-court process to qualify for a casino employee license.
These bills address important issues within a complex area of law, so they’ll need a lot of care and work in legislative committees to proceed.
But it’s reassuring to see the Democrats and Republicans working together on important aspects of the effort to help those swept up in the opioid crisis. Few topics more deserve to be exempt from politics.