Pubdate: Sun, 13 May 2007
Source: Asbury Park Press (NJ)
Copyright: 2007 Asbury Park Press
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 Atlantic City and Camden, 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. Both sides of the issue have long 
disputed whether needle exchange will reduce the spread of disease 
without increasing crime.

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."

One of the eligible cities that didn't apply is Asbury Park. Among 
the 25 cities with the most cases of HIV/AIDS in New Jersey, it has 
the smallest population but the highest percentage of residents 
living with the disease.

Ed Higgins, president and executive director of JSAS HealthCare, 
which treats substance abuse in the city, said those statistics are 
misleading because the city's population is so small -- less than 
half of any of the other eligible cities.

Plus, a combination of factors such as more education about the risks 
of sharing dirty needles and a purer heroin that has fewer people 
shooting up, Higgins said, have already reduced the number of new cases.

"We pretty much test all of the patients that come in for treatment 
here," Higgins said. "And we've only had two new positives in the 
last 2 1/2 years, which is great news compared to what was going on years ago."
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman