A pioneering effort by officials in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to start the state's first needle exchange program (NEP) has been challenged by Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey Blitz, the Press of Atlantic City reported Wednesday. Although the state has no law allowing NEPs, which seek to reduce HIV and Hep C infection rates by reducing needle sharing among drug users, Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford last month gave the city health department the okay for an NEP using mobile vans.
Faced with the state's highest rate of HIV infection among black males, Mayor Langford sought a legal way to start such a program. According to the Press, Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey Director Roseanne Scotti alerted Langford to an obscure 1999 amendment to the criminal code that, according to her analysis, exempts governmental agencies from the state law that makes needle possession a crime.
But Prosecutor Blitz, who learned of the planned city-operated NEP by reading the Press, reacted quickly. On April 30, four days after the first Press article appeared, he notified Atlantic City officials that he had reviewed the law and found it allowed government agencies to distribute needles only to people with prescriptions. "There is no authority for programs to place needles and syringes in the hands of people addicted to heroin," Blitz said Tuesday. "This is a program that has to be considered by the Legislature."
Blitz's opinion contradicts that of Atlantic City Solicitor Beverly Graham-Foy, who had reviewed the law at Mayor Langford's request and found it did allow the city to operate a program. And needle exchange law expert Temple University professor Scott Burris told the Press Blitz was wrong. The amendment clearly exempts local governments, he said. "I'd be happy to be their lawyer," Burris said. "You never know, 100%, what a court is going to do. But I think the city has an extremely strong case."
Mayor Langford and his administration appear committed to starting an NEP, even if it means a court challenge. "We're still planning on moving forward," Atlantic City Health and Human Services Director Ron Cash told the Press. "There are some legal challenges we need to address."
New Jersey still awaits its first sanctioned needle exchange project. In the meantime, the state Health Department reports that 46% of all new HIV cases in the state are caused by shared needles. That number rises to more than half of all new cases in Atlantic City.