Outgoing New Jersey Governor Calls for Needle Access Legislation 9/3/04

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New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey (D), who will leave office November 15 after tendering his resignation amidst personal scandal, has called on legislative leaders and Health Commissioner Clifton Lacy to craft legislation that would allow the operation of needle exchange programs (NEPs) in the Garden State. He is also calling for companion legislation that would allow injection drug users to purchase syringes without a prescription.

Numerous studies have shown NEPs and easier access to syringes to significantly reduce the spread of HIV and other infectious blood-borne diseases. New Jersey is one of only two states that allow neither NEPs nor syringe purchases without a prescription.

Although spokespersons for both McGreevey and Lacy told DRCNet that the impression is incorrect, McGreevey had previously been viewed as favoring NEPs only in a hospital setting. While Health Commissioner Lacy and legislators met for the first time Tuesday to begin crafting draft legislation, it remains unclear at this time what those bills will actually look like.

"The governor has always supported needle exchange programs as long as they were in the right health environment," said McGreevey spokeswoman Juliet Johnson. "At this point, given that he is leaving office soon, good politics is not a consideration; good policy is the only concern," she told DRCNet. "We are very confident we can get it done," she said.

Donna Leusner, press secretary for the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, told DRCNet McGreevey's push for needle exchange legislation does not mark a departure from his previous position. "Commissioner Lacy and the governor have the same position and have had the same position," Leusner said. "I think there is some misunderstanding of what the governor meant with the hospitals. The governor's position and Commissioner Lacy's position is that NEPs should also provide health, mental health and social services -- it doesn't have to be in a hospital building."

As the state's top health official, Lacy met Tuesday with legislative leaders interested in advancing the issue, including state Sen. Nia Gill (D), Sen. Joseph Vitale, and Assembly Speaker Rep. Joseph Roberts Jr., to begin crafting draft legislation. According to Leusner, Lacy and McGreevey want to get legislation moving on a fast track, especially since McGreevey leaves office mid-November. "This is one of the governor's priority health initiatives, and we are hoping for a concrete draft by the end of next week," she said. "Commissioner Lacy has said he hopes the legislation would be drafted and would move through the legislature and be on the governor's desk before his tenure ends November 15," she explained.

"There is convincing evidence that these programs work," said Leusner. "NEPs are a very effective means of reducing the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases."

"We are encouraged," said Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org) New Jersey Drug Policy Project head Roseanne Scotti, who has played a key role in bringing this issue back into play this year. "We are looking for a decent bill and we will work to get it this year. We have a governor who says he is willing to sign such a bill, and it would be good if we could get it done before he left. Assembly Speaker Roberts has said he wants to do this early on, and if he can get legislation before committees and on to a floor vote, it could happen. Sen. Nia Gill is spearheading this in the Senate, and she has met with Roberts. But we only have a little more than two months."

Scotti remained a bit skeptical, however, about what legislation will eventually emerge. "We couldn't support a bill that only gives us hospital-based NEPs," said Scotti. "Whenever that has been tried, it has failed. What we are hoping for is a bill that will allow municipalities to go ahead with their own programs. NEPs can have a significant public health impact if the legislation is broad enough to allow real syringe access."

NEPs have long been a controversial issue in New Jersey. Nearly a decade ago, Gov. Christie Whitman (R) rejected her own AIDS advisory committee's recommendation to support NEPs. Whitman said at the time that giving clean needles to drug users was tantamount to condoning drug use. When campaigning for governor in 2001, McGreevey said he would support a pilot project for an NEP linked to a hospital, but that never happened.

The issue heated up again earlier this year when, thanks to a close reading of New Jersey law by DPA's Scotti. While state law does not explicitly allow for NEPs, Scotti found a recent revision of the criminal code that appears to provide an opening. City officials in Atlantic City and Camden, both hard hit by injection drug use-related HIV and Hepatitis C cases, voted to go ahead and pass ordinances authorizing municipal NEPs despite opinions from local prosecutors and the state attorney general that NEPs remained illegal.

The battle ended up in court, and Superior Court Judge H. Valerie Armstrong ruled Wednesday that the Atlantic City NEP ordinance, which authorized the city health department to distribute syringes, was invalid. In her ruling, Armstrong said that municipalities lack the legal authority to institute such programs. As a result, a similar ordinance in Camden is now also in doubt.

Wednesday's decision prompted Assembly Majority Leader Roberts to tell the Newark Star-Ledger that the ruling "is the most recent indicator that the Legislature needs to confront the issue of syringe exchange in New Jersey. People -- innocent babies -- are dying."

"Roberts is the person who has really pushed the envelope on this," said Scotti. "After Camden passed its ordinance, city officials there reached out to him and said they wanted to work with him in dealing with this terrible public health crisis. I took him up to Prevention Point in Philadelphia and to NEPs in New York City, and he even checked out NEPs in Boston during the Democratic convention. Now, he is helping to push this through."

Now, the clock is ticking on McGreevey's tenure. More meetings between Health Commissioner Lacy and legislative leaders are set for next week, and the administration hopes to have legislation ready by the end of next week.

"Getting needle exchange and needle access bills passed and signed would be a fine legacy for the governor," said Scotti.

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Issue #352, 9/3/04 Editorial: Back Home in Indiana | In Indiana, Gubernatorial Candidates' College Marijuana Use Provides Opening for Discussion of Higher Education Act Drug Provision | Outgoing New Jersey Governor Calls for Needle Access Legislation | Kentucky's New Drug Strategy: More of the Same, Plus a Drug Czar | Montana Moving Toward Appointing a Drug Czar? | Newsbrief: Alaska Supreme Court Restricts Marijuana Search Warrants | Newsbrief: European Drug Reformers Seek More Dialogue with European Union, Funding for Permanent Dialogue | Newsbrief: House Speaker Dennis Hastert Defames Drug Reform Funder Soros, New Jersey DA Joins Smear Campaign | Newsbrief: Human Rights Watch Calls on Schwarzenneger to Sign Needle Access Bills | Newsbrief: Marijuana Policy Ads Return to DC Following Court Victory | Newsbrief: Safe Crack-Smoking Kits Distributed in Winnipeg | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Ninety-nine Percent of All Marijuana Eradicated in US is Feral Hemp, Federal Data Reveals | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar
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