If NJ has any chance against addiction and HIV infection rates, it starts here

August 23, 2021
By Star-Ledger Editorial Board

Gov. Murphy seems unable or unwilling to prevent the needle exchange program in Atlantic City from being shuttered by its city council, but he’s done the next best thing: He’s thrown his support behind a legislative proposal that will strip local government of the power to block these life-saving clinics.

These programs save lives. It’s been proven over and over that they reduce the spread of infectious diseases, and channel IV drug users into treatment programs for their addictions. And long before anyone heard of COVID, facilities like the Oasis Drop-In Center in Atlantic City gamely battled the double epidemics of heroin addiction and blood-borne infections like HIV.

Now it is scheduled to close in November because of an ordinance the city passed last month, and rather than twisting arms to keep Oasis open, Murphy has endorsed S-3009, a bill that will give the Department of Health the power to essentially drop a harm reduction center into communities that have the greatest need.

It’s a powerful response to the myopia and fear that will leave 1,200 Oasis clients with nowhere else to go for clean needles, because the city and state have yet to find an alternate site away from the tourism-area footprint. Given that our state is on course for 3,000-plus overdose deaths again this year, that is unacceptable.

But the failure to save Oasis must be a catalyst for a law that puts New Jersey – which has only 7 harm reduction centers for 535 municipalities – more in step with states like Massachusetts, which has 44.

Atlantic City council members noted, with justification, that the city is caring for addicts that come from the surrounding suburbs, none of which have needle exchanges. That’s a strong argument that this bill could address by placing exchange programs in those suburban towns as well.

Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli put it this way: “There is a lot of misunderstanding among the public about harm reduction, and unfortunately it deepens the stigma that prevents vulnerable individuals from accessing life-saving health services,” she said. “A legislative solution is the only one that can preserve access to these services throughout the state.”

Murphy rarely comments on pending legislation, but he did this time, with a 1,600-word statement recently. The bill gives the commissioner broad authority, and municipalities will undoubtedly object to that. It reads that the commissioner “shall meet with the mayor and council. . . .to present detailed plans,” and that it will “promptly respond to concerns and other issues,” but says nothing about how much input a local government would have in their placement.

If that sounds like a shrieking, four-alarm Nimby alert, the sponsor is prepared for it.

“Addiction and the spread of infectious is a problem everywhere, and all communities should play a role in fighting it,” said Senate Health Committee chairman Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex). “Not every town will have a harm reduction center, but where there is the greatest need, there will be one. And to give municipalities over their location is appropriate.

“But for a local government to say that a harm reduction center just can’t come – like in Atlantic City – that serves no one.”

Vitale can also expect some jousting from Michael Cerra of the League of Municipalities, who denounces the bill as “a blanket statewide policy based on the action in one community.”

What the League must acknowledge, however, is the need for a statewide approach to this crisis. Vitale is blunt: “We’re putting more people at risk in Atlantic City, and there’s no way to sugar-coat it: The spread of blood-borne diseases will explode, and for some of them it will be a death sentence,” he said.

Even if Oasis finds a new location, harm reduction services are available in only 1.2 percent of New Jersey’s towns. That’s an absurd figure, because as Carol Harney of South Jersey AIDS Alliance put it, our syringe access services are a public health success story – period.

Facts: Addicts with access to these programs are less likely to die from fatal overdose, five times more likely to enter treatment, and 50 percent less likely to acquire HIV or Hep-C than those without access.

New Jersey needs fast and bold expansion of needle exchanges. This is life and death. Given those stakes, the state has to act.

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