Pubdate: Mon, 26 Apr 2004
Source: Press of Atlantic City, The (NJ)
Copyright: 2004 South Jersey Publishing Co.
Author: Pete Mcaleer, Statehouse Bureau
Note: New Jersey readers, please see
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


ATLANTIC CITY - Needle-exchange programs have long been considered
illegal in New Jersey, but Mayor Lorenzo Langford and his
administration say they have found legal justification for the city to
run a program of its own.

Alerted to a 1994 amendment that exempts government agencies from a
state law criminalizing the possession and distribution of needles,
Langford recently gave Health and Human Services Director Ron Cash the
go-ahead to pursue a program that would allow heroin addicts to
exchange used needles for clean ones at mobile health clinics. The
goal is to slow the spread of AIDS and hepatitis C in a city where the
HIV infection rate among black males is the highest in New Jersey.

"If I do nothing else but get this project done, it will be a legacy I
will feel pretty good about," Cash told The Press of Atlantic City on

How the state may react to Atlantic City taking on needle exchange is
uncertain. The Attorney General's Office did not return a phone call
requesting comment.

Gov. James E. McGreevey expressed support for a hospital-based
needle-exchange program when he took office, but he kept silent last
year after a bill legalizing the sale and possession of needles got
quashed amid concerns from Attorney General Peter C. Harvey and state
senators from Newark and Ocean County.

After the defeat in the Legislature, New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance
Director Roseanne Scotti discovered that a 1994 amendment to the
state's criminal code offered a new strategy. She approached Atlantic
City officials two months ago about a municipally run needle exchange
and more recently began talks with municipal officials in Camden.

Atlantic City Solicitor Steven Smoger reviewed the amendment and
agreed it opens the door to allow Atlantic City to start New Jersey's
first needle exchange.

"If we wait for the state, it could be eight or 10 years from now,"
Cash said. "We're letting the state know about our plans and we hope
they support us. But we believe we have the authority to do this."

Cash said he hopes to get a program started in the fall, but the city
is not bound to a time frame. Details must be worked out and more
discussions must be held.

"The mayor has told us to move forward, but in the right way," Cash
said. "We have to do some educating and massaging."

City Council must approve the project, but in a city where the mayor
and City Council rarely agree on anything, Langford and his political
rival, City Council President Craig Callaway, appear to agree about
needle exchange.

"Absolutely, it's going to take some political guts," Callaway said.
"But if we can save one person's life, in a sense we have saved humanity."

One of every 32 black males in Atlantic City lives with HIV, the virus
that causes AIDS. In more than half of those cases, shared needles are
the cause. Hepatitis C, a disease difficult and expensive to treat, is
spreading at an even faster rate.

State Health Department statistics show 46 percent of HIV infections
in New Jersey are the result of shared needles. The national average
is 25 percent.

Two weeks ago, Cash visited the Prevention Point program in
Philadelphia, which was created through an emergency order by former
Mayor Ed Rendell. The program sends mobile health clinics into the
most drug-infested alleys of the city, giving addicts the opportunity
to exchange dirty needles for clean ones while seeking either medical
help or treatment for their addiction.

Atlantic City's Health Department already has a mobile health clinic.
City officials are also talking with the South Jersey AIDS Alliance
about using one of their offices for a permanent needle exchange site.

Together, the city Health Department, the AIDS Alliance and the New
Jersey Drug Policy Alliance are applying for a grant from Levi
Strauss. The jeans manufacturer has targeted New Jersey as one of four
states to send money for needle-exchange programs.

"Anywhere needle exchange has been instituted, it's been successful,"
AIDS Alliance Executive Director Keith Egan said. "There have been
reductions in HIV transmission without significant increases in drug

Yet there are still many opponents from all sides of the political
spectrum. When a bill decriminalizing needle possession gained
momentum last year, state Sen. Ronald Rice, a Democrat from Newark,
vowed to do whatever he could to fight it. State Sen. Leonard Connors,
R-Ocean, called the plan a giant step backward in the enforcement of
the drug war in New Jersey.

The bill did not get reintroduced this year and, with the
gubernatorial election approaching, its chances for resurrection
appear slim. Scotti, of the Drug Policy Alliance, said she would still
like to see statewide access to clean needles, but its prospects for
the near future do not look good at the moment. State Sen. Bill
Gormley, R-Atlantic, who co-sponsored the legislation, said he
understands the skepticism.

"It was a bi-partisan bill and it didn't pass," Gormley said.
"Obviously, they have a basis to have that opinion."

For Cash, who began discussing the concept 10 years ago, supporting
needle exchange is a matter of acknowledging "the elephant in the
living room."

"The numbers are so clear," Cash said. "Needle exchange is a bridge to
treatment. It saves money (on health care) and, most importantly, it
saves lives."

To win the public-relations battle, however, Atlantic City officials
may have to make the case that needle exchange protects not only
heroin addicts, but their sexual partners, their babies and anyone who
walks in an area where contaminated needles are discarded.

Just last week, Callaway said, a young girl at Stanley Holmes Village
punctured her foot on a needle dropped in the street by a drug user.

"The reality is, drug use is part of our society," Callaway said.
"Until we can stop drugs from coming in, we can all get on our moral
high horses, but, meanwhile, innocent people are being affected." 
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