The Atlantic City, New Jersey, City Council voted Wednesday night to give the go-ahead to what will be the state's first government-run needle exchange program (NEP). The move comes despite an opinion from state Attorney General Peter Harvey that such a program would violate state law, and appears to set the stage for a legal showdown.
The City Council vote was 7-1 in favor of going ahead with the NEP after a hearing dominated by supporters of the move. No one spoke against the measure, but Councilman Dennis Mason, a former police officer who cast the sole vote against, vowed to challenge the vote in Superior Court. "I don't think this municipality has the authority to supercede state law," he said.
But that was a minority opinion. Ten people spoke in favor of NEPs, including AIDS activists, a Lutheran Church representative, a former city health officer, and the spokesman for the city's largest labor union. "A person does not become addicted to a needle, he becomes addicted to a drug," said HERE Local 54 spokesman Michael Conley. "Obviously the time has come to change the way we think about addiction."
The City Council shared those sentiments, and some members had harsh words for Gov. Jim McGreevey, who has said he supported NEPs, but only on an inpatient basis. "He's not the one who's going to have to console family members in the community who have lost loved ones," Councilman Marty Small said. "We're the ones who have to deal with that."
New Jersey is one of only five states that require a prescription to possess a needle and, along with neighboring Delaware, one of only two that have not passed laws allowing NEPs. "It's a pathetic situation we have here in this state where saving lives is viewed as a crime," said Frank Fulbrook, a Camden AIDS activist. "Saving lives trumps all the other arguments. If Atlantic City and Camden take the lead, other cities will follow quickly."
Camden could indeed be next in the revolt of the municipalities. According to the Press of Atlantic City, the Camden City Council could vote to follow in Atlantic City's footsteps within weeks.
Atlantic City Health and Human Services Director Ron Cash was rearing to go. He told the council he would get an NEP underway "one way or another." The vote was a "personal home-rule situation," said an elated Cash afterward. "We hope the governor and the attorney general appreciate the fact that we're just trying to save lives," Cash said. "We're going to challenge the system."
A spokesman for the Attorney General's office was not amused. "Our office has serious concerns about any policy or practice which facilitates or encourages drug use, particularly heroin or cocaine," said spokesman Paul Loriquet. "We should be focused upon extracting men and women from drug addiction and making resources available for regional drug-treatment programs, particularly for people who don't have health insurance."
Atlantic City's needle-exchange program would be "reviewed" by the Attorney General's office, he added ominously.
But the pressure for needle-exchange as a life-saving harm reduction measure in a state ravaged by injection drug-related AIDS is mounting.