Jay Lassiter, a 45-year-old South Carolina native is many things — an HIV-positive activist who crusades for LGBT and abortion rights, a campaigner for legalized marijuana, and a podcaster who uses his platform to fight against heroin, opioid, and amphetamine addictions. And he strongly believes that some killer diseases can be prevented by giving clean needles to intravenous drug users.
Although his luncheon speech before an April 19 meeting of the National Council of Jewish Women’s (NCJW) Essex County Section was billed as “Opioids in New Jersey, a Tragic Reality,” Lassiter’s 45-minute talk went far afield, ranging from personal anecdotes to pleas that NCJW members join his fight to stop “spreading the cooties” caused by addicts sharing contaminated needles.
Lassiter, a 45-year-old gay man with a conservative Catholic upbringing in a Marine Corps family home who later became an atheist, began his talk by saying, “I love to be in a roomful of Jewish women.” He told the audience of 100 at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange: “I’ve never felt so loved. I really feel like I’m with my kinfolk here.”
In 2003, he said, he traded his 20-year drug habit for political activism. Confessing that he was addicted “to whatever I could get my hands on,” Lassiter said he started with “a three-year alcohol bender,” followed by “thousands of hits” of LSD, then “lots of pills and lots of stealing, because I was a thief. When you’re a drug addict you’ve got to get your drugs somehow.” For some people it took the form of stealing. For others it was trading sex.
He said he is often frustrated when he talks to lawmakers about clean needles. They view
“everything I say as uncomfortable.” When he tells New Jersey legislators “‘we want to cut down on blood-borne diseases by giving addicts clean needles,’ they are so ignorant they think I am encouraging drug use.”
“I used to be a drug addict, and you know what we will do if we don’t have a clean needle?” he asked. “We will use a dirty needle.”
Lassiter said he gets hate mail from people who say drug addicts should die rather than receive clean needles. Such logic is counterintuitive, he said. “They don’t have a dollar for a clean needle, but they have $42,000 to lock somebody up for a year.”
The only official needle exchange programs in New Jersey are in Paterson, Newark, Camden, Asbury Park, Atlantic City, and Jersey City.
“I don’t want people doing heroin. But I don’t want them doing it in ways that are going to be harder to fix down the road,” Lassiter said. “An ounce of prevention when we are talking about these types of cooties — hepatitis, AIDS, staph infections — is worth more than a pound of cure.”
At one point Lassiter held aloft Narcan, an inhaled medicine that can reverse potentially lethal overdoses from heroin and other opioids. Narcan is available over-the-counter and should only be administered to an addict after a call to 9-1-1.
“Let’s be honest,” he said. “This is a great life-saver, but using Narcan admits we are failing.” Eighteen thousand doses of Narcan were administered in the United States last year, he said, “but Jesus, wouldn’t it be great if none of them had been drug addicts in the first place?”
Turning to prescribed painkillers, Lassiter said part of the problem is caused by doctors and hospitals whose focus is short-term treatments for patients.
“Hospitals want to get those good ratings” from discharged patients by “sending them out there numb” with prescription painkillers. “Federal funds are tied to patients’ satisfaction surveys, and that’s troubling.”
Lassiter supports legalizing marijuana, but he said children and teenagers should hold off from smoking pot until they’re older. “Tell them to wait until their brains are developed,” he advised the audience filled with mothers and grandmothers. “I would lock them in a room and throw away the key,” he joked, “especially if I had a daughter.”
“Basically, I’m really liberal,” Lassiter said. “But when it comes to kids, I’m like an Orthodox Jew.”