Barring successful legal challenges, New Jersey appears set to see its first legal needle exchange programs (NEPs) soon. While the passage of legislation enabling NEPs has been stalled for more than a decade despite an impressive push this year, outgoing Gov. Jim McGreevey last November signed an executive order allowing municipalities to establish NEPs.
At the time he issued the order, McGreevey said it was necessary to address the "public health emergency" of AIDS transmission via injection drug use. According to state data, 51% of the state's AIDS cases are attributable to needle sharing. Along with neighboring Delaware, New Jersey is one of only two states that has no law okaying either NEPs or non-prescription syringe sales.
Under the order, cities had to have already passed NEP ordinances, and two cities, Atlantic City and Camden, had already done so. The deadline for cities to apply to start an NEP was last week, and those two cities have met that deadline, the state health department reported on April 29. Approval by the state should come today, if matters move on schedule. According to Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance, who has been working the issue, the cities expect approval and are gearing up for operations. The first New Jersey NEPs could come into operation as soon as early summer.
Potential roadblocks remain, however, in the form of two lawsuits. In one case, four legislators filed suit after McGreevey signed the executive order challenging his lawful ability to do so. In the second case, the Atlantic City prosecutor has filed a challenge to the city's NEP ordinance and its legal authority to establish such a program. Both cases are still working their way through the courts.
Meanwhile, reform advocates will continue to push for two bills, one on NEPs and one on pharmacy sales of needles, which passed in the Assembly this session but remain bottled up in the Senate Health Committee. Efforts in the legislature have been hamstrung by politicians who view NEPs as condoning drug use or, in some cases, helping perpetuate a "genocide" on the state's African American community. Other African American leaders, however, such as state Sen. Nia Gill, have led pro-needle exchange legislative efforts.