Opinion: Concerning AIDS and the State Legislature

R. William Potter | November 24, 2010 | Opinion
It's long past time for over-the-counter syringe sales in New Jersey

Is there a way to preserve thousands of lives; prevent the spread of hepatitis, AIDS, and other blood-borne diseases; and save millions of dollars — all without costing taxpayers a dime?

There would be if the legislature were to enact Senate Bill 958 or Assembly Bill 1088, which legalize over-the-counter sales of syringes.

A similar law is in effect in every state of the Union — except New Jersey and Delaware.

That’s right, in Sarah Palin’s Alaska and John McCain’s Arizona — the reddest of red states — you can legally obtain up to 10 syringes by walking into a pharmacy and buying them. They cost about 50 cents a set.

Don’t try that in the Garden State, where civil rights, environmental protection and other “liberal” causes have had bipartisan backing for decades.

And yet, the same leaders resist life-saving, tax-saving approaches to public health, ones that are of special importance to minorities and the poor.

Despite this “historical blind spot,” to quote Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance in Trenton, “New Jersey is changing.” She cites the success of the state’s 2006 needle-exchange program and says a “major push” is on the way for approval of S958/A1088 in the next few weeks.

It couldn’t come at a better time.

December 6 is “World AIDS Awareness Day,” when we stop to ponder this mostly preventable pandemic that has taken millions of lives and condemned millions more, mostly poor, to brief lives of chronic sickness and suffering.

New Jersey has not been spared the ravages of AIDS. There have been 73,000 reported cases and 39,000 deaths. About 40 percent of those cases were caused by sharing dirty needles.

And it is not just intravenous drug addicts who get AIDS. The virus is passed on to their partners and children.

But the children of AIDS parents suffer even if they are not infected. “More than 22,000 children in the state have been orphaned by losing parents to AIDS,” according to a study by the Campaign for a Healthier New Jersey.

The benefits of making clean syringes readily available are beyond dispute. “It lets people use their own money to protect their own health,” said Scotti. It also protects the wallets of taxpayers.

It costs an estimated $618,000 to treat a single, indigent AIDS sufferer. The cumulative cost of caring for those 73,000 AIDS cases would exceed an astronomical $45 billion.

Many African-American leaders are all over this issue, as they should be.

Three-quarters of New Jersey’s adult and adolescent HIV/AIDS cases are African-American: One in 63 African-Americans living in the state is carrying the virus.

By contrast, only one in 728 whites is infected. In Newark and Atlantic City, the rates are one in 30 persons of color.

The supporters of over-the-counter pharmacy sales are a veritable checklist of the state’s public health establishment. They include the Medical Society of New Jersey, the New Jersey Hospital Association, the Academy of Family Physicians, Garden State Pharmacy Owners, the New Jersey Council of Chain Drug Stores, the Practical Nurse’s Association and the American Diabetes Association.

Joining that formidable lineup are the Black Ministers Council and the National Latina Health Network, among others.

So far no public hearings have been held on either bill. That’s unfortunate. But the sponsors — Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) and Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen) in the Assembly and Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) in the Senate — are Trenton veterans who know how to move legislation when they put their political muscle behind it. Let’s hope they do, and sooner not later. How about a hearing on December 6?

The big question mark is Governor Christie. His views aren’t known, but his Department of Health commissioner, Dr. Poonam Alaigh, seems in favor. At her confirmation hearing she spoke glowingly of needle exchange. But that was before the administration’s recent effort to make the nation’s most restrictive medical cannabis law even more restrictive.