Pubdate: Sat, 15 May 2004
Source: Press of Atlantic City, The (NJ)
Copyright: 2004 South Jersey Publishing Co.
Author: Pete Mcaleer, Statehouse Bureau
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


TRENTON - An Essex County senator will introduce legislation Monday
that allows interested municipalities, such as Atlantic City, to set
up state-supervised needle-exchange programs.

Sen. Nia Gill, a Democrat, decided to sponsor the bill after the state
attorney general and Atlantic County prosecutor ruled Atlantic City
did not have the authority to help drug addicts exchange used needles
for clean ones.

The legislation requires the involvement of health professionals and
access to drug treatment and counseling.

Gill's support is a boon for needle-exchange supporters because of her
influence in the Legislature's Black Caucus.

When a bill to decriminalize needle possession was introduced last
year, it was another black Democratic senator from Essex County,
Ronald Rice, who voiced objections that helped convince sponsors to
withdraw the bill. Another black senator from Essex County, Sharpe
James, of Newark, also opposes needle exchange.

"I will have to bring them all on board," Gill said. "The community
that's dying looks like them, and we have the statistics to show
whatever we're doing, it's not effective."

In Atlantic City, one in every 32 black residents is infected with
HIV, the highest percentage in the state, and more than 60 percent
contracted the disease through shared needles.

Atlantic City officials maintain a 1999 amendment grants them
authority to set up needle exchange programs. But Mayor Lorenzo
Langford, speaking on the subject for the first time Friday,
acknowledged the city is not prepared to move as quickly as it would
like because of the rulings from Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey S.
Blitz and Attorney General Peter Harvey.

"We're not interested in getting in a fight with the attorney general
or with the prosecutor, but we are committed to doing what we have to
do to protect this community," Langford said. "Right now, we're
reviewing our options, but we still think we want to move forward."

Gill said her bill will simply "clarify" Atlantic City's right to
establish a needle exchange by adding additional language that makes
the law clearer. She said the HIV statistics in New Jersey,
particularly among women and children, are too powerful for the
Legislature to ignore. New Jersey has the highest proportion of women
infected with HIV in the country and the third highest pediatric HIV

"Those are devastating numbers," Gill said. "This is a health issue.
If a municipality feels conditions have reached epidemic proportions,
they should be allowed to do (needle exchange.)"

Opponents argue such programs condone drug use.

New Jersey is one of five states that require a prescription to
purchase a syringe. Along with Delaware, it is one of two states that
do not allow needle exchange programs in its inner cities.

If the legislation stalls, Temple University Law School professor
Scott Burris, considered a leading authority on needle exchange, has
said he would represent Atlantic City in court.

"I look forward to finding out exactly what legal objection the
attorney general has," Burris said. "The statute and its legislative
history clearly show that local governments are exempt from the law
against distributing syringes."

Atlantic City nurse Carole Ceanfaglione, who lost her son to
injection-related HIV, said she could not understand why anyone would
challenge the city's right to provide a life-saving program.

"So many people have lost their lives to this," she said. "Not just
people who are drug users themselves, but also women who have been
infected by their drug-using partners and babies who have gotten the
virus from their mothers. We have to do something to protect people." 
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