Editorial: Benefit of the Doubt 5/21/04

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David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 5/21/04

David Borden
It's been some years since Diana McCague and the Chai Project challenged New Jersey's laws banning sterile syringe distribution. The efforts of Diana and her cohorts saved some lives while they lasted. But it was probably inevitable that the power of the state and the political opposition of drug warrior governor Christine Todd Whitman would end needle exchange in New Brunswick -- bringing the lives of some of their former clients to an untimely end in the process, one can presume is statistically likely. I remember some AIDS advocates commenting at the time that the next AIDS baby should be named "Christy," in the governor's honor. I don't remember that happening, though it would have been appropriate.

The next major chapter in New Jersey's needle exchange wars is now unfolding. Attorneys concerned with the issue have discovered that although state law might forbid private projects like the Chai Project (even there the key word is "might," state of emergency resolutions by city health departments are another option), the state has a law on the books that makes it legal for municipalities to distribute syringes. Based on that discovery, Atlantic City has decided to open a needle exchange program.

Unfortunately, that endeavor is now delayed. New Jersey's attorney general, Peter Harvey, has come out with an official pronouncement that in his opinion the law cited by Atlantic City officials only permits distribution of syringes to patients with a prescription for them. The lawyers, and the city, disagree, and in the end it would be for a court to decide that question, not the attorney general, who is just one lawyer, albeit a lawyer with a lot of clout and the power to challenge the city in court.

But also with the discretion to not challenge them. Advocates for syringe exchange believe that Harvey is flat out wrong and that the meaning of the statute is clear. Harvey has not explained his reasoning, while the advocates have explained theirs. But suppose he does have some legitimate legal point to raise. Still the best one could say, if so, would be there are arguments worth hearing on both sides of the issue that need to be sorted out.

New Jersey's legislature should move quickly to enact a bill sponsored by state senator Nia Gill to resolve any possible ambiguity and make the right for cities to do needle exchange completely explicit and irrefutable. In the meantime, though, needle exchange should move forward – the benefit of any legal doubt should lie with saving lives, not ending them by banning life-saving voluntary programs. As Gill told the Press of Atlantic City, "[t]he HIV statistics... are too disturbing for the state to ignore."

Especially for Atlantic City's marginalized and at risk, who face the possibility of contracting a deadly virus for every day the city is forced to wait. Sen. Gill remembers them, and Attorney General Harvey should too.

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Issue #338, 5/21/04 Editorial: Benefit of the Doubt | Vermont Becomes Ninth State to Legalize Medical Marijuana – Other States See Progress and Setbacks | Not With a Bang but a Whimper: California Pain Doctor Frank Fisher Exonerated in Last Criminal Case | Needle Exchange in New Jersey? Atlantic City Says Yes, Attorney General Says No | Dope and Diplomacy in Dublin: European Union Conference Tries to Lay Groundwork for Continental Drug Strategy | Announcing: "The New Prohibition: Voices of Dissent Challenge the Drug War" – New Compendium by Sheriff Masters Features David Borden and Numerous Other Thinkers on Drug Policy | Newsbrief: New Jersey Student Sues Over Drug Tests, Expulsion | Newsbrief: Drug War Invades Ultimate Frisbee | Newsbrief: One in 11 US Prisoners Doing Life, Study Finds | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Bill to Reform Harsh Tennessee Marijuana Sales Law Dies Lonely Death | Newsbrief: Afghan Government Concedes It Includes Traffickers | Newsbrief: Rural Maryland Cops Force Students to Disrobe During Drug Raid | Web Scan: Ron Paul, Mayor Campbell, Westword, Nature, ACLU-TX Task Force Report, New DPFMA Web Site | Job Opportunity – Research Assistant, Office of Legal Affairs, Drug Policy Alliance, Oakland, California | The Reformer's Calendar

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