Published in the Courier News, Monday, May 14, 2007
5 cities to try needle exchange
Seven eligible cities have no plans to implement contentious program
By GREGORY J. VOLPE
Gannett State Bureau
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.
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 AHDS was not an emergency and said exchange programs needed legislative approval.
Despite some delays in the Senate, where Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Newark, 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 of the 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.
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 their own, Scotti said.
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.
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 two and a half years, which is great news compared to what was going on years ago."
The health commissioner will report to the Legislature in five years whether the program should become permanent and possibly expanded.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.