Pubdate: Fri, 10 Sep 2004
Source: Star-Ledger (NJ)
Copyright: 2004 Newark Morning Ledger Co
Author: Tom Moran
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Ron Cash, the health director in Atlantic City, was working in his
City Hall office one recent afternoon when his secretary screamed for

A heroin addict was rummaging through her pocketbook. Cash jumped from
his chair, chased him to the street and dragged him back to the
office. The addict, it turned out, had a dirty needle in his pocket.

And, as Cash expected, he had the AIDs virus in his bloodstream. A
time bomb waiting to kill him.

"We have AIDs numbers down here like sub-Saharan Africa," Cash says.
"It's just sad."

New Jersey has lost more than 31,000 people to the AIDs epidemic,
making us one of the hardest-hit states in the nation.

 From the start, the epidemic here has been driven by addicts like the
one in Cash's office, not by homosexuals. That dirty needle in his
pocket, multiplied thousands of times, is the tool that allows the
virus to spread so easily in the state's poorest cities.

New Jersey could save a great many lives by allowing addicts to
legally obtain clean needles. We know that because there is a track
record now. Nearly ever other state in the country is already doing
it. Even Mississippi.

"There's an overwhelming stack of evidence now that says you're
foolish not to do this," says physician Robert Johnson, chairman of
the governor's advisory council on AIDs. "Every bit of research shows
that it reduces the spread of HIV, and doesn't encourage drug use."

The coalition that has blocked needle exchanges stretches from right
to left. Former Gov. Christie Whitman, a moderate on most issues, says
needle exchanges "send the wrong message." Sen. Ron Rice, an
African-American Democrat from Newark, calls these programs
"anti-black" and claims they encourage drug use.

"I don't have a study on that," he says. "But that's my

If you wonder how these arguments can carry the day, think of it from
the point of view of a timid politician: Why risk being called a
racist? Why risk appearing soft on drugs? Why not work on some other
cause instead?

Now, though, the stars may be aligning to change this. For one, Gov.
James E. McGreevey announced that he will finally support a needle
exchange program, as he promised he would back in the 2001 campaign.
His decision to resign has freed him to act on his convictions, which
sounds inspiring until you realize he has failed to act on those
convictions for the last three years.

Maybe as important, Assemblyman Joe Roberts, the majority leader, has
taken on this cause and been working nearly full time on it for
months. The Assembly has trailed behind the Senate on this issue for
years, but Roberts' awakening means passage is likely.

"I'm not going to be bullied by Ron Rice," he says. "When he says I'm
a white guy from the suburbs who wants to do this, I say I've lived in
Camden since 1987, and if they want to put a trailer on my street to
distribute needles, I'm fine with that."

The challenge will be in the Senate, where Sens. Nia Gill and Joe
Vitale have work to do to reach 21 votes. In that fight, the key
player could be Senate President Richard Codey, soon to be the acting
governor. Codey supported a 1998 bill establishing a needle exchange.
But he said this week that he's undecided on the issue.

Add the revolt at the grassroots, especially in Atlantic City and
Camden, where the city councils have threatened to create their own
programs in defiance of state law. They are forcing the discussion.

Cash, for his part, vows that he will get needles to addicts in his
city -- even if he has to break the law to do it. He's ready to go to
jail if the politicians don't act soon. He says he's waited too long

"I have family members who have been infected and died, and personal
friends I grew up with who have died," he says. "We're hoping and
praying that it's time for a change." 
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