Statewide Needle Exchange Getting Closer in New Jersey

Supporters praise expansion but say more funding is needed for community programs to be a success

After years of unsuccessful attempts to expand syringe-exchange efforts in New Jersey, lawmakers approved a measure on Monday that would enable communities across the state to establish clean needle programs that studies show have helped reduce the spread of blood-borne infections like HIV and hepatitis C.

The Garden State launched a pilot program nearly a decade ago to test the syringe-swapping model in a half dozen urban communities that are home to high number of intravenous drug users and above-average rates of blood-borne diseases. Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark, and Paterson now have programs; Asbury Park is also an authorized site but has not implemented a program.

Today there are more than 200 programs in place across three dozen states nationwide, according to the North American Syringe Access Network, which tracks and advocates for such efforts. Supporters said they have saved tens of thousands of lives and reduced the spread of AIDS, HIV and other diseases that are easily transmitted when intravenous drug users share dirty needles when shooting up.

On Monday, amid a flurry of last-minute legislative activity, both the Senate and Assembly voted to support plans (S-1266/ A-415 that would make syringe exchange a permanent fixture in New Jersey and allow additional communities to start clean-needle programs. These efforts, run by local government or a nonprofit organization, provide addicts with sterile “works” as well as health screenings, medical referrals, and — if and when the user is ready — a referral to drug-abuse treatment.

Changes made a week ago to the Senate version prompted a need for further amendments in the Assembly, and that house is expected to make final changes to align the two versions on Thursday, its last voting session before the summer break. The plan then requires Gov. Chris Christie’s signature; while the governor has been a strong supporter of efforts to curb New Jersey’s opioid epidemic, his office declined to comment on the proposal Monday, its usual policy with pending legislation.

Statistics are hard to come by, but experts believe there are well over 100,000 active heroin users in New Jersey — plus tens of thousands more addicted to opioid-based painkillers. And more than 5,000 died from heroin use in the past decade. Demand for treatment programs has skyrocketed in recent years, state records show, and hundreds of users die every year — a death rate some have said is three times the national average.

“This legislation is desperately needed and advocates across the state will be reaching out to Gov. Christie to urge him to sign this lifesaving bill,” said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the national Drug Policy Alliance, which has long advocated for clean-needle programs.

[related]State reports prove the five existing programs are working, Scotti said, both by preventing the spread of disease and increasing participation in treatment programs. “Every time someone visits a Syringe Access Program, it is one less chance they will get HIV and hepatitis C and one more chance they will get access to drug treatment and other needed services,” she said.

The programs also save taxpayer dollars, Scotti noted. Caring for a patient with HIV can cost well over $600,000, she said, while a clean syringe costs roughly 10 cents. “By funding New Jersey’s Syringe Access Programs, the state will save lives and save money. There isn’t a better investment the state could make.”

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), a longtime champion of needle exchange who sponsored the bill with Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), said the Senate version was amended last week to remove an appropriation from the bill in order to expedite the legislative approval process. He said the $95,000 proposed to help fund the programs — the same level of funding now provided for the pilot program — was instead written into the new Democratic budget proposal party leaders outlined last week as an alternative to Christie’s $34.8 billion plan announced in February.

“These programs have helped to stem the transmission of HIV not only in New Jersey but throughout the country,” said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), who sponsored that version with Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-Bergen) and Annette Quijano (D-Union.) “Funding is crucial for these programs. We must ensure they are continually supported in the future.”

Axel Torres Marrero, an advocate with the New Jersey-based Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, also welcomed the news, which he said was a long time coming. “But I can’t talk about it without thinking about all the lives that have been lost to this epidemic” while New Jersey leaders debated the issue, but were unable to agree on a plan to expand clean needle programs, he said.

Marrero praised Vitale in particular for pressing the issue over the years but noted that without more funding new programs are unlikely to develop in other Garden State communities. Hyacinth needs close to $200,000 to run an effective needle exchange program, he said. While a change in federal rules could free up additional dollars for some aspects of treatment, the $95,000 envisioned as a budget line for this expansion is “nowhere near the amount required,” Marrero said.