Pubdate: Wed, 01 Sep 2004
Source: Times, The (Trenton, NJ)
Copyright: 2004 The Times
Author: Joseph Dee, Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


TRENTON - Heroin addicts and other injection drug users could soon
have access to clean needles under a bill Gov. James E. McGreevey
hopes to sign into law before resigning from office in November.

Momentum is building for the bill, which apparently would permit
needle-exchange programs to be established but would not allow
nonprescription, over-the-counter sales of syringes at pharmacies.

A spokesman for the governor said McGreevey's impending resignation
gives him the freedom to tackle such controversial issues.

"It does free him up to worry about what issues he can resolve before
he leaves," said spokesman Micah Rasmussen. "Politics is no longer a
consideration. Good policy is the only concern at this point.
(McGreevey) has always supported an exchange program in the right
health environment. We're pretty confident that we can get it done."

More than half of the cumulative HIV/AIDS cases in New Jersey have
been attributed to sharing dirty needles or by having sex with someone
who was infected by one.

Through December, 62,752 New Jersey residents have been diagnosed with
HIV or AIDS. About half have died. A total of 31,320 remain alive,
according to Department of Health and Senior Services Commissioner Dr.
Clifton Lacy, who spoke to reporters yesterday after meeting with
legislative leaders.

If a bill that's being drafted becomes law, Delaware will be the only
state in the nation that does not offer residents either needle
exchange or over-the-counter sales of syringes, said Drug Policy
Alliance Director Roseanne Scotti.

Forty-five states permit addicts to buy needles without a
prescription, she said.

"I would say that we're cautiously optimistic," Scotti said. "We're
thrilled that the Legislature is taking an interest in this - it seems
to be moving forward - and that the governor is being supportive of
the policy. But we know there are still issues to be worked out."

Among the legislators who met with Lacy yesterday is Joseph J. Roberts
Jr., D-Bellmawr. "We're so long overdue in dealing with this. It's a
disgrace," he said.

Roberts said he hoped to have a bill ready for committee hearings in
September. Asked if he favored exchange programs over pharmacy sales,
he said, "It's clear the syringe exchange program will reach the
greatest number of people and will provide the most meaningful impact
in AIDS and HIV infection rates in New Jersey."

If a bill passes the state Senate, it will be over the strenuous
objections of Sen. Ronald L. Rice, D-Newark.

He said providing addicts with access to needles would only perpetuate
the problem of drug dealing on city street corners. "There will be
more drug dealing in cities as a result of clean needles," Rice predicted.

"My concern is that when you give that needle out, they're going to
have to go someplace to buy their drugs," Rice said. "I can assure you
they're not going to Cherry Hill, Short Hills or Deal. They're going
to go to Camden, to Trenton, to Atlantic City street corners, to the
Newarks, the East Oranges, the Irvingtons."

Rice, a former cop, said he also doubts access to needles will prevent
addicts from sharing needles. "If it's your last needle and its 3 or 4
in the morning, you're going to share anyway."

The location of needle-exchange programs could become a political
issue, supporters and detractors said.

"If there's going to be an exchange, let's put it in the neighborhood
of the legislators supporting it," Rice said. "I guarantee it if you
put an exchange program within five blocks of their home, people are
going to run them out of town."

Roberts said exchange programs would not be foisted upon cities or
towns by mandate. "One thing that's absolutely clear is that these
programs should only be located in municipalities that approve them."
He said he has visited exchange programs in New York City,
Philadelphia and Boston.

Rice said a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention has demonstrated that needle-exchange programs don't work.

But Lacy said numerous studies of needle-exchange programs, including
one conducted by the National Institutes of Health in 1997, has shown
that access to clean needles reduces risky behavior by 30 to 80 percent.

Such programs not only reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis but also
connect addicts to treatment counselors and medical professionals, he

Lacy also said studies show needle-exchange programs do not encourage
people to try injection drugs. "There is convincing evidence that
these programs are beneficial and that they do not increase IV drug
use in the communities in which they operate," he said.

Lacy would not say whether he wants the bill to decriminalize
possession of needles and permit over-the-counter sales of syringes.
He said it was discussed yesterday and in other meetings with
legislators in recent weeks.

Roberts said one compromise approach used elsewhere permits
exchange-program participants to legally possess needles. "Someone
enrolled in a needle-exchange program is issued an ID card. If they
are searched or arrested, they are not charged," he said. 
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