Pubdate: Mon, 12 Jul 2004
Source: Express-Times, The (PA)
Copyright: 2004 The Express-Times
Author: Susan K. Livio, Star-Ledger Staff
Cited: Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Two-and-a-half years after Gov. James E. McGreevey took office and pledged 
to legalize needle exchanges to curb the spread of HIV and AIDS, frustrated 
activists and lawmakers are still waiting for a program to materialize.

Last month, governing bodies in Atlantic City and Camden, two cities 
hard-hit by the virus, grew tired of waiting and passed ordinances creating 
local exchange programs. 								

The Atlantic County prosecutor, with the support of state Attorney General 
Peter Harvey, immediately challenged the move. In Camden, the 
state-appointed chief operating officer, Randy Primas, has threatened to 
veto it.

These are battles needle exchange advocates did not expect to fight on 
McGreevey's watch.

"I am disappointed the state chose to challenge the ordinance," said 
Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey, an 
activist group that helped the cities draft the ordinances. "Municipalities 
have a right to protect their citizens from epidemics and diseases. We are 
talking about saving people's lives."

Still, advocates of programs to exchange drug users' contaminated needles 
for clean ones are pleased the issue has been revived. The local skirmishes 
have lit a fire under legislators who promise to deliver a bill McGreevey 
will support.

Assembly Majority Leader Joe Roberts (D-Camden) is the latest to take up 
the cause. Finding a solution will be his "summer project," he said, vowing 
to introduce a bill when the Legislature returns after its summer break.

Roberts said he was troubled that the Camden and Atlantic City ordinances 
appear to run counter to state law, but understands why the councils acted.

"They are trying to take matters into their own hands because they believe 
the state has not taken on a leadership role," Roberts said. "Our current 
policy has resulted in people losing their lives. It's intolerable."

New Jersey has more than 45,000 AIDS cases, fifth-highest in the nation. 
Intravenous drug use is linked to 45 percent of the adult and teen HIV 
infections, much higher than the 25 percent national rate, according to 
state and federal data.

Delaware and New Jersey are the only states without legal exchange programs 
or a law that allows non-prescription sale of needles.

Opponents of these programs argue they condone illegal drug use. The New 
Jersey Catholic Conference, representing the state's bishops, said the 
Atlantic City and Camden ordinances would endanger the public.

"Addicts will be able to walk around with needles, even in school zone 
areas," said Marlene Lao-Collins, the conference's associate director. "A 
better use of our tax dollars would be to establish adequate funding for 
education, drug treatment, as well as anti-retroviral therapy and essential 
community-based social services for recovering addicts" and their families.

Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey S. Blitz has sued Atlantic City, arguing 
that if the city distributes needles without prescriptions, individuals 
could face arrest for "unlawfully receiving that which another component of 
government has given to them."

Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, said it 
supported Blitz because "currently, the law prohibits needle exchange 
programs in New Jersey and we will continue to enforce the law."

Scotti, of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the cities will argue in court 
that the ordinances are valid because the state law banning drug 
paraphernalia does not apply to medical professionals or institutions, or 
to a state or government agency.

The debate in New Jersey is at least a decade old, surfacing when 
volunteers who called themselves the Chai Project (Chai is Hebrew for 
"life") began running an underground exchange program in New Brunswick in 
1994. After authorities arrested volunteers twice, they stopped 
distributing free needles in 1998.

Then-Gov. Christie Whitman strongly objected to needle exchange, saying it 
sent the wrong message -- that government condones drug use.

Since taking office in January 2002, McGreevey's position has not wavered, 
said his health commissioner, Clifton Lacy. McGreevey has said he would 
support a pilot program run from or by a hospital that can provide a bridge 
to treatment and counseling.

"If a bill came to the governor to sign, he would sign it," Lacy said. 
"There's no question these programs are beneficial. The scientific evidence 
is there. And it's been shown it does not encourage drug use."

Yet bills that would put clean needles in intravenous drug users' hands 
have gone nowhere. Some blame that on a lukewarm response from lawmakers 
and McGreevey's administration.

"I'm not sure anyone believes there is enough votes," said Riki Jacobs, 
vice chairwoman of the Governor's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and Related 
Blood-Borne Pathogens, and one of the most vocal supporters of syringe 
exchange in New Jersey.

"The way (legislators) think is they are not going to push something unless 
they are sure they can pass it," said Jacobs, who also is the executive 
director of the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, an advocacy and service organization.

Earlier this year, aides close to McGreevey told legislators that needle 
exchange is a controversy he cannot afford right now, according to two 
state sources familiar with the conversation, who spoke on condition of 

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), one of the syringe bill sponsors, 
acknowledged it's a thorny issue. "This will be one of the most difficult 
political lifts in my seven years in the Legislature. But it's well past 
time New Jersey supported exchange programs they should have had years ago."

Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), a former police officer, disagrees, saying a 
program that makes it easier to use illegal drugs raises public safety issues.

"Residents are saying we care about AIDS, but please, our major concern is 
getting drug dealers away from our homes, our schools, our church steps, so 
we can feel safe again," Rice said. "The trickle-down of giving a free 
needle is (the user) still needs to go to street corners to get their 

"The free needle assures people there will be a buyer."

Councilman Ali Sloan-El Sr., who sponsored the ordinance in Camden, called 
Rice's viewpoint "old fashioned."

"He doesn't recognize people are in desperate need of help," Sloan-El said. 
"He wants the drug dealers off the corner. It's easy to say law enforcement 
can do this, but that ain't working." 
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