Pubdate: Fri, 15 Oct 2004
Source: Press of Atlantic City, The (NJ)
Copyright: 2004 South Jersey Publishing Co.
Author: Pete McAleer, Statehouse Bureau
Cited: Drug Policy Alliance
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Efforts in the New Jersey Legislature to allow greater access to clean
needles hit a major roadblock Thursday when sponsors failed to get the
necessary votes from the Senate Health Committee.

Although the committee was scheduled to vote on a pair of
syringe-access bills that would allow municipalities to adopt
state-approved needle exchange programs and permit the sale of as many
as 10 syringes without a prescription, it postponed its decision and
instead took nearly four hours of testimony.

While AIDS activists pleaded with the committee to pass the bill and
reduce the spread of disease, bill sponsors were left to devise a new

"Apparently, the Republican Party has decided that they want to create
a political issue when this is a public-health issue," said Sen. Joe
Vitale, chairman of the Health Committee and prime sponsor of one of
the syringe-access bills.

Democrats, however, played as crucial a role in blocking the bill as

The bills' prospects first hit a snag Wednesday night when sponsors
could not convince Sen. Fred Madden, D-Gloucester, to vote for it.
Assembly Majority Leader Joe Roberts, D-Camden, had pushed to have
Madden replaced on the committee for the day, but state Senate
President Richard Codey, D-Essex, refused to allow it.

With another Democrat, Sen. Ron Rice of Newark, adamantly opposed,
sponsors needed two Republican votes. Then Sen. Robert Singer of Ocean
County - who had been counted on as the lone Republican vote - also
withdrew support for the bill.

At the end of the last legislative session, Singer sponsored a bill
that allowed the pharmaceutical sale of syringes without a
prescription. Asked about his new stance, Singer said he spoke with
law-enforcement officials over the summer and changed his mind.
Treatment and education, he said, are more effective ways to deal with
New Jersey's AIDS crisis. Calls to his legislative office were 10-to-1
against needle exchange, he said.

"I wish this was the right way to go, but it's not the solution."
Singer said.

Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle, who flew in from North Carolina to
testify in support of the bill, found the whole scenario disturbing.
Initially against the idea of needle exchange, Shindle studied the
issue after she won the crown and, several months into her reign,
became a vocal supporter, testifying before Congress for federal
funding of syringe-access programs.

"It's an embarrassment that New Jersey is one of two states that does
not have syringe-access laws," Shindle said before the hearing. "The
facts sell anybody on it. It's when people allow politics and what
they think is ideology to get in the way that there's a problem."

Shindle never got to testify, as the committee chairman called for an
end to the hearing at 4:30 p.m.

New Jersey remains one of two states - Delaware is the other - that do
not allow either needle-exchange programs or pharmaceutical sales of
needles without a prescription. Its HIV rates are among the highest in
the country, particularly among women and children.

A spokesman for Codey, who will take over as acting governor next
month, said the senator has not yet taken a position on the
syringe-access bills and is waiting to review the testimony from
Thursday's hearing.

Gov. James E. McGreevey has said he wants to sign the bills before he
leaves office. Whether he could declare a public-health emergency and
sign the bills through executive order is uncertain.

Several southern New Jersey officials showed up to testify in support
of the bills Thursday, including Atlantic City Health and Human
Services Director Ron Cash. Earlier this year, Cash led the city's
effort to establish its own needle-exchange program as a way to stem
the spread of a disease that has infected one in 40 residents.

Although the syringe-access bills have already passed the full
Assembly, they will not move further in the Legislature unless Madden
and Singer can be swayed to change their vote.

"I think this is a very tough issue for Republicans who are afraid of
primary opponents who might demagogue this issue and say they're soft
on drugs." Roberts said.

The four hours of testimony included a lengthy debate between Rice and
state Health Commissioner Clifton Lacy. Rice said valuable resources
should be concentrated on AIDS treatment and education. Others
challenged the program on the basis that it condones drug use and
increases crime.

The majority of those allowed to testify cited numerous studies and
personal experiences that confirmed the program lowered HIV
transmission rates and created gateways to drug treatment. Lacy said
those studies, taken as a whole, are conclusive.

"We're not debating statistics," Rice countered. "We're debating

Despite the political obstacles, a lobbyist pushing for the
syringe-access bills, Roseanne Scotti of Drug Policy Alliance, said
the bills prospects are "still alive."

"We've got this further than it has ever gone before," Scotti said.
"But we need to do even more education."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake