Pubdate: Sun, 13 May 2007
Source: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, NJ)
Copyright: 2007 Courier-Post
Author: Gregory J. Volpe
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


TRENTON -- Five of the 12 eligible cities have applied to the state 
Department of Health and Senior Services to begin pilot needle 
exchange programs.

Up to six municipalities could receive permission to start needle 
exchange programs -- hoped to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS and other 
diseases among intravenous drug users -- provided they exceed certain 
statistics: 350 residents with HIV/AIDS and a prevalence rate 
attributable to drug use of more than 300 per 100,000 residents.

Of the 12 cities that meet the criteria, Camden and Atlantic City, 
which have long sought exchange programs, applied, along with Newark, 
Paterson and Trenton. Asbury Park, New Brunswick, Plainfield, East 
Orange, Elizabeth, Irvington and Jersey City did not.

"It's been a battle, so we're glad to see it," said Ron Cash, 
director of Atlantic City's Health Department, which plans to provide 
needle exchanges through vans and fixed sites.

The law took a contentious and uncertain route. In 2004, then-Gov. 
James E. McGreevey signed an executive order permitting pilot 
programs in three cities, but a month before programs were to start 
in Camden and Atlantic City, an appeals court ruled the spread of 
AIDS was not an emergency and said exchange programs needed 
legislative approval.

Despite some delays in the Senate, where Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, 
was a staunch critic with a key committee vote, the measure was 
signed into law in December. By the end of the summer there could be 
up to five programs in New Jersey -- the last state to have any sort 
of needle exchange program.

Camden's program will begin once the state approves its program, 
which is expected to occur by the end of June.

"It's going to be crucial to saving lives of injection drug users," 
said Jose Quann, program coordinator of the Camden Area Health 
Education Center. "It's going to affect the community at large where 
contaminated needles wouldn't be discarded all over the city. 
Injection drug users will have access to sterile syringes that they 
might not get infected or infect their loved ones."

Critics, however, say the programs is akin to government-sanctioned 
drug use and that taxpayer dollars should only be used for treatment 
and recovery. To garner support, lawmakers tacked on $10 million for 
addiction services as part as the exchange legislation.

"Most cities understand that the exchange of free needles is a 
national movement to legalize drugs, but more importantly, they know 
they bring about more problems through crime, gang banging and other 
kinds of criminal justice problems," said Rice, a former Newark police officer.

John Tomicki, of the Citizens Against Needle Exchange, said needle 
exchanges elsewhere have failed. "Tragically, all we can do is watch 
history repeat itself," said Tomicki, who works on a number of 
socially conservative causes.

The issue of whether needle exchange will reduce the spread of 
disease without increasing crime is disputed.

Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the 
programs will work in New Jersey without the rise in crime that 
critics predict. Some cities that didn't apply are waiting to see how 
the programs do before starting ones, Scotti said.

"It's a process that takes time," Scotti said. "Atlantic City and 
Camden spent a couple years -- while they were advocating for this -- 
educating their city officials and educating the staff at the 
organizations that would do this. . . . I certainly think there are 
other cities that are interested and that they will just apply late 
and the state will hopefully grant them some leeway there. We're 
talking about saving lives here."

If New Jersey's pilot programs work, the Health Commissioner will 
report to the Legislature in five years whether the program should 
become permanent and possibly expanded.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman