Pubdate: Wed, 12 May 2004
Source: Press of Atlantic City, The (NJ)
Page: Front Page, Lead Article
Copyright: 2004 South Jersey Publishing Co.
Author: Pete McAleer, Statehouse Bureau
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey S. Blitz has told Atlantic City
officials they do not have the authority to start the state's first
needle-exchange program on their own.

Mayor Lorenzo Langford and his administration, which views needle
exchange as a way to combat the high rate of AIDS and hepatitis C in
the city, appear willing to contest the edict, even if it means a
court battle.

"We're still planning on moving forward," Atlantic City Health and
Human Services Director Ron Cash said. "There are some legal
challenges we need to address."

Blitz first learned of the city's plans two weeks ago, after a report
in The Press of Atlantic City in which Cash confirmed discussions to
start a program that would allow heroin addicts to exchange used
needles for clean ones at city-run mobile health clinics. Cash said
the city's authority came from a 1999 amendment that exempts
governmental agencies from the section of state law that criminalizes
needle and syringe possession.

Blitz reviewed the law and determined it allows government agencies to
distribute needles and syringes only to those with a prescription.

"There is no authority for programs to place needles and syringes in
the hands of people addicted to heroin," Blitz said Tuesday. "This is
a program that has to be considered by the Legislature."

Blitz notified Atlantic City officials of his decision with a phone
call and a letter dated April 30. Both Blitz and Atlantic City
Solicitor Beverly Graham-Foy declined to release the letter;
Graham-Foy would not even confirm its receipt.

Blitz said his decision had nothing to do with the merits of
needle-exchange and declined to give his personal opinion on the issue.

"My job is to interpret the law," Blitz said. "Clearly, it's not
authorized by law."

Needle-exchange supporters disagree. Temple University professor Scott
Burris, who has published more than a dozen articles on syringe-access
law, said the 1999 amendment clearly exempts local governments such as
Atlantic City.

"I'd be happy to be their lawyer," Burris said. "You never know, 100
percent, what a court is going to do. But I think the city has an
extremely strong case."

Burris advised the city of Philadelphia when it set up a
needle-exchange program under an emergency order from then-Mayor Ed
Rendell. Pennsylvania and New Jersey are two of five states that do
not allow the sale of needles or syringes without a prescription. All
but New Jersey and Delaware allow needle exchange in their cities.

Shared needles are the cause of more than half of the AIDS and HIV
cases in Atlantic City, where the HIV rate among black males is the
highest in the state. Across New Jersey, 46 percent of HIV infections
stem from shared needles, the third-highest percentage in the nation,
according to the state Health Department. The national average is 25

Most studies show - and most experts agree - needle-exchange reduces
the spread of HIV and AIDS without leading to an increase in drug use.

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

Harvey said he was concerned about how such a program would be run.
State Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Newark, and State Sen. Leonard Connors,
R-Ocean, said the programs are not effective and send the wrong
message in the war against drugs.

Needle-exchange supporters are skeptical about the chances of getting
McGreevey to sign a needle-exchange law before the 2005 election. 
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