With letters, tweets and banners flown over the Jersey Shore, advocates have been urging Gov. Phil Murphy to protect Atlantic City’s syringe-exchange program from a local government effort to end the public health service.
The public campaign — which involves dozens of community groups, academics, addiction-services providers and social justice organizations who joined forces as the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition — may have succeeded. While she could provide no details, Murphy’s press secretary Alyana Alfaro said he supports the city’s needle-exchange initiative, one of New Jersey’s seven so-called harm reduction centers.
“Governor Murphy believes that harm reduction centers are critical to battling the opioid crisis. The Murphy Administration is committed to ensuring that Atlantic City and area residents continue to have access to these evidence-based and life-saving services,” Alfaro told NJ Spotlight News on Tuesday, the day before the city council was set to vote to eliminate the program.
New Jersey’s harm reduction centers include syringe exchanges, or access programs, that allow IV drug users to swap “dirty works” for clean equipment, a process that has been proven to reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV, AIDS and hepatitis C. They also offer clients drug treatment opportunities, if and when they are ready, and give out the overdose-reversal agent naloxone — services supporters said are critical right now, given the state’s continuing opioid crisis. According to federal data, people in the program are five times more likely to enter treatment than drug users who are not involved in an exchange.
Harm reduction programs in New Jersey also employ nurses trained to treat wounds and other basic health needs and address chronic conditions like diabetes. Some, like the Oasis Drop-in Center in Atlantic City, also offer showers, laundry services and space to hang out, although some of these options were suspended during the pandemic.
Pushback from locals
But towns in New Jersey have not always welcomed harm reduction centers and it took years for the state to establish some of the programs that currently exist. In addition to Atlantic City, syringe access programs now operate in Asbury Park, Camden, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson and Trenton, although hours have been cut at some sites.
In Atlantic City, city council members have over the years raised concerns about the presence of used needles in the nearby streets and said the program acts as a draw for drug users from other areas.
While decisions about syringe-access programs are usually a local matter by statute, Atlantic City’s municipal government is overseen by the state Department of Community Affairs, headed by Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver. Under the 2016 takeover law, orchestrated by former Gov. Chris Christie and extended under Murphy, state officials have significant power over many aspects of the city’s operations.
As of Tuesday evening, the Atlantic City Council was scheduled to vote Wednesday on an ordinance that would repeal the existing measure permitting the syringe-access program to operate under the state’s Bloodborne Disease Harm Reduction Act of 2006. The city’s proposal offers no argument for ending the program other than noting that the law requires local government to approve its existence. If the measure is approved, all syringe-exchange efforts would need to “cease operations in any form” within 30 days.
Council President George Tibbitt, who sponsored the ordinance along with two of his colleagues, did not return requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.
The ordinance was first reported two weeks ago by a local talk-radio station, WPG 95.5 FM, which said it could be passed by a unanimous vote at Wednesday’s meeting. The story notes Tibbitt said he had contacted Oliver and the DCA to alert them to his plan.
Carol Harney, president and CEO of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, which operates the Oasis program, said there could be devastating impacts to ending the city’s syringe exchange, given the significant local needs.
“Our role in the community is to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS and Hep-C and Atlantic City is one of the state’s 10 ‘impact’ cities with high rates of HIV,” she said, noting the program has had some success in driving down infection rates.
Vincent DiGioia-Laird, a former IV drug user and previous Oasis client, said before needle exchange arrived in Atlantic City, addicts would break into medial offices to steal clean supplies. DiGioia-Laird said he would use a new needle for weeks, prompting infections that led him to the hospital, which would treat him at taxpayers’ expense because he lacked insurance.
“So those tax dollars were hard at work,” DiGioia-Laird said in jest. “Access to clean needles is very important,” he added, “and these programs are more than just clean needles. That’s just what gets you in the door.”
Harney is also concerned that if local government in Atlantic City ends the program, other communities with concerns about hosting harm reduction initiatives could follow suit. Other coalition members share this worry, noting that the programs remain controversial to some, despite widespread substance use statewide.
“Today syringe access is available in only seven of New Jersey’s 21 counties and only 1.2 percent of municipalities — shutting down an existing program would be a grave setback for New Jersey and its residents who rely on these lifesaving services,” reads the letter to Murphy from the Harm Reduction Coalition, which urged the administration to protect the Atlantic City site and help create additional programs around the state.
Legislation introduced last fall by a handful of Democratic lawmakers — including Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), who led the fight for the 2006 law —would help achieve this goal by removing local approval as a requirement for the program to operate. Supporters said existing law gives too much control to local politicians and makes it hard for programs to grow and succeed.
“Syringe access programs are essential public health services, and the stakes of closing Atlantic City’s syringe access program are life-and-death for residents who use drugs and their loved ones. Not only can New Jersey not afford to shut down one of its seven harm reduction programs, but we need to rapidly scale these programs throughout the state,” the coalition’s letter states.