Pubdate: Wed, 28 Jul 2004
Source: Press of Atlantic City, The (NJ)
Copyright: 2004 South Jersey Publishing Co.
Author: Pete McAleer, Statehouse Bureau
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


State Officials Examine Program, Seek to Change Needle-Possession

BOSTON - You won't find La Grange Street on any of the maps handed out
to delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

The narrow one-way street, in a neighborhood once referred to as "the
combat zone," remains one of the few streets left unclean for this
week's big event.

But La Grange Street is where two of New Jersey's most prominent
delegates went Tuesday morning. Far removed from the hotel conferences
and open-bar receptions that dominate the typical convention schedule,
they stood in the back of an old bread truck parked across the street
from two rundown strip bars, the Glass Slipper and Good Times.

As heroin addicts stepped inside the truck to exchange used needles
for clean ones, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Roberts, D-Camden, and
state Sen. Nia Gill, D-Newark, observed and asked lots of questions.
The two legislators will need all the information they can gather in
their effort to change the needle-possession law in a state that,
along with Delaware, holds the toughest restrictions in the nation.

For more than a decade, New Jersey's Legislature has avoided the mere
discussion of needle exchange as a tool to lower the state's high rate
of HIV and AIDS. The program's prospects have looked so dim, Atlantic
City and Camden - two cities fighting AIDS epidemics - are seeking to
start their own programs in defiance of the state attorney general.

In Atlantic City, where one in 40 residents has the HIV virus, Mayor
Lorenzo Langford's administration is preparing to challenge the
state's needle-possession law in court.

Roberts' advocacy offers new hope for needle-exchange supporters.
Considered Trenton's most powerful legislator by many, Roberts has
made the issue his summer project. He wants to get a needle-exchange
bill to the governor's desk by the end of September.

"It's going to be a significant pull," Roberts said. "It's an easy
issue to demagogue."

Opponents in the Legislature argue needle exchange condones drug use
and they dispute the accuracy of federal health department surveys
that show the programs reduce the spread of AIDS.

Although Gov. James E. McGreevey officially supports a hospital-based
needle exchange, his closest advisers have warned him the issue is too
politically divisive to tackle right now.

Although Roberts' plan is still in the crafting stage, he plans to
introduce two bills aimed at preventing addicts from sharing needles.
One would set up needle-exchange programs in municipalities that
approve them. It would include several components - among them a fixed
exchange site, a mobile health-care van and a hospital-linked program
- - that would allow addicts to not only exchange needles but access
medical treatment and counseling.

A second bill would allow those 18 and older to purchase a limited
number of clean needles without a prescription, provided pharmacists
distribute information about treatment.

New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware and Pennsylvania remain the only
four states that require prescriptions to purchase needles, although
Massachusetts and Pennsylvania offer needle-exchange programs in their
inner cities.

In recent weeks, Roberts and a staff member have traveled to New York
and Philadelphia to observe needle-exchange programs there.

Roseanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, said
Roberts' support adds new excitement to a battle she began fighting
several years ago. She went to New York and Philadelphia with Roberts
and came away impressed with his knowledge.

"He asked some of the best question anyone's ever asked about needle
exchange," Scotti said. "He understands just how serious and important
it is. He can come up with a solution that is politically acceptable
and still a legitimate public-health intervention."

The Boston trip provided Roberts insight into a political dynamic
comparable to New Jersey. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino remains a vocal
advocate for changing the state's prescription laws, even though the
Legislature declines to act.

In New Jersey, the state Legislature has ignored resolutions
supporting needle-exchange laws passed by city councils in Atlantic
City, Camden and New Brunswick.

"That tells me that as we move into this area, we have to respect
local officials who know their community best," Roberts said. "If you
have a situation where local officials in two communities are prepared
to take matters into their own hands because people are dying, the
Legislature needs to find a way to solve the problem."

At its core, needle exchange is a dispute between the law-enforcement
and health communities.

Even in Boston, where needle-exchange participants are given
identification cards to protect them from arrests for possession of
drug paraphernalia, some police officers still follow participants,
search them and even charge them with crimes. The charges are usually
thrown out in court, but they can serve to discourage participants,
said Adam Butler, one of the coordinators for Boston's 10-year-old
needle-exchange program.

"We're in the middle of two wars," Butler said. "The HIV war and the
drug war."

The same battle continues in New Jersey, where Health Commissioner
Clifton Lacy pushes for new needle laws and Attorney General Peter C.
Harvey opposes any changes. If the health side is to win out, law
enforcement will need to be persuaded to view needle exchange

"Our job is to be respectful of law enforcement but redefine this as a
health issue," Roberts said.

Roberts' guest on the trip to LaGrange Street offers proof that minds
can be changed. Gill, one of the leaders of the Legislature's Black
Caucus, opposed needle exchange for years because she thought drug
users would congregate in urban areas and interfere with economic
development in inner cities.

Gill said she changed her mind after looking at the statistics. New
Jersey's HIV rate ranks in the top three in the nation for women and
children, with shared needles identified as the root cause for almost
half of the state's HIV cases.

A few months before Roberts got involved, Gill introduced a bill that
would allow municipalities to adopt their own needle-exchange
programs. She now looks at such programs as a way to save lives.

"This is a policy of containment for the spread of disease," Gill
said. "I learned not to look at it in an emotional way." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake