Pubdate: Thu, 17 Jun 2004
Source: Press of Atlantic City, The (NJ)
Copyright: 2004 South Jersey Publishing Co.
Author: Pete McAleer, Statehouse Bureau
Cited: South Jersey AIDS Alliance
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


N.J.'S First Government-Run Program Sets Stage for Suit

ATLANTIC CITY - City Council approved the startup of New Jersey's
first government-run needle-exchange program Wednesday, setting off a
court battle that pits one of the nation's most restrictive hypodermic
syringe possession laws against a municipality's right to protect the
health of its citizens.

The council passed the ordinance 7-1, with Councilwoman Cassandra
McCall-Clark abstaining. The lone dissenter, Councilman Dennis Mason,
said he would challenge the decision in Superior Court.

"I don't think this municipality has the authority to supersede state
law," said Mason, a retired police officer.

The council later passed a resolution seeking a court decision as

Atlantic City Health and Human Services Director Ron Cash vowed to get
the program under way "one way or another," telling the council it had
an opportunity to give the city a fighting chance against an AIDS
epidemic that infects one in 40 residents and one in 32 black males,
the highest rate in New Jersey. After the vote, Cash called Atlantic
City's quest to start a needle-exchange program "a personal home-rule

"We hope the governor and the attorney general appreciate the fact
that we're just trying to save lives," Cash said. "We're going to
challenge the system."

Mayor Lorenzo Langford has 20 days to sign the ordinance and is
expected to do so when he returns from vacation. Cash thanked a City
Council dominated by Langford rivals for putting political differences

"I want you to know I appreciate your courage," Cash said. "Public
health is bigger than any politics."

Needle-exchange advocates contend that a 1999 amendment to the state's
syringe possession law opens the door for local governments. For
several months, the city's health department has worked with the South
Jersey AIDS Alliance on a program that would rely on both a mobile van
and a stationary site to give drug users a place to exchange used
needles for clean ones while offering them AIDS testing, treatment
referrals, counseling and medical care.

County and state law enforcement officials have vowed to block
Atlantic City's efforts. Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey S. Blitz
could not be reached for comment after the meeting, but he said
Tuesday he would take whatever actions necessary to ensure compliance
with the law. Attorney General's office spokesman Paul Loriquet said
Atlantic City's plans would be reviewed.

"Our office has serious concerns about any policy or practice which
facilitates or encourages drug use, particularly heroin or cocaine,"
Loriquet said. "We should be focused upon extracting men and women
from drug addiction and making resources available for regional
drug-treatment programs, particularly for people who don't have health

Supporters of needle exchange, who dominated the audience in the
Council Chambers, said treatment programs alone have failed to work
and bolder steps are needed. The 10 people who testified in support of
needle exchange included a representative of a local Lutheran Church,
the manager of a needle-exchange program in Philadelphia who said her
group's efforts led to a reduction of HIV cases in the city, AIDS
activists from Camden and Princeton, a former city health official who
told the council he was prepared to go jail with them, and the
spokesman for the city's largest union, H.E.R.E. Local 54, who said
the argument that needle exchanges condone drug use is "a myth."

"A person does not become addicted to a needle, he becomes addicted to
a drug," said Local 54 spokesman Michael Conley, reading a statement
from union President Robert McDevitt. "Obviously the time has come to
change the way we think about addiction."

No one from the public spoke against the ordinance. Many in the crowd
wore orange buttons that read, "Needle exchanges save lives." Carol
Ceanfaglone, an HIV-prevention worker in Atlantic City, stood near the
exit to the Council Chambers and watched the testimony. Her son, Marty
Walsh, died of AIDS in 1994 after contracting the disease by sharing a
needle with another heroin user.

New Jersey is one of five states that require a permit to possess a
hypodermic needle and syringe. Of those five, all but New Jersey and
Delaware offer needle-exchange programs in their inner cities.

"It's a pathetic situation we have here in this state where saving
lives is viewed as a crime," said Frank Fulbrook, an activist in
Camden, where the City Council is expected to vote to approve needle
exchange in the coming weeks. "Saving lives trumps all the other
arguments. If Atlantic City and Camden take the lead, other cities
will follow quickly."

Councilman Timothy Mancuso cautioned that handing out needles to
heroin users could serve to further the cycle of drug abuse.

"What's the next step, do we provide a nurse to inject the needle?"
asked Mancuso, who ended up voting for the ordinance. "A lot of drugs
are cut up. Maybe we should provide the drugs because the drugs are so

City Councilman Eugene Robinson compared his support for needle
exchange to his involvement with the 1960s civil rights movement.

"Today we're going to make history," Robinson said. "There are many
issues today, but this is paramount."

Others on the council took aim at Gov. James E. McGreevey, who has
said he will support needle exchange only in a hospital-based setting.

"He's not the one who's going to have to console family members in the
community who have lost loved ones," Councilman Marty Small said.
"We're the ones who have to deal with that."

Outside the council chambers, Cash embraced Roseanne Scotti, director
of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, who approached Atlantic City
officials about supporting needle exchange several months ago.

"When people get together to do the right thing, this is what
happens," Cash told her.



Supporters say:

1. Reduces spread of AIDS without increasing drug use.

2. Reduces cost of health care.

3. Serves as bridge to treatment for drug users.

Opponents say:

1. Helps drug users continue their habit.

2. Sends government-sanctioned message of condoning drug

3. Violates state law. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake