With the clock ticking down on his scandal-shortened term and frustrated by a recalcitrant legislature, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey (D) Tuesday issued an executive order allowing three Garden State cities to begin needle exchange programs (NEPs) in an effort to stem the spread of HIV and other viruses transmitted through intravenous drug use.
If the move survives threatened court challenges, it will mark the end of a decade-long struggle to bring NEPs to the state, which suffers from one of the highest injection drug-related HIV rates in the country. Although the issue had died down in recent years, it was revived earlier this year, largely thanks to the city councils in Atlantic City and Camden, both of which voted to start NEPs without waiting for new enabling legislation. In both cases, the Drug Policy Alliance's (http://www.drugpolicy.org) New Jersey director, Roseanne Scotti, played a key role by lobbying for the measures and by helping to craft a novel legal argument supporting their establishment.
But after those efforts were challenged by state Attorney General Peter Harvey and knocked down in the court, Scotti and key legislators moved to pass a bill this fall. That effort gained crucial political support when Gov. McGreevey threw his weight behind the effort. McGreevey had previously supported NEPs in principle, but opposed them in practice for what it is now clear were political reasons. After McGreevey decided to resign his office in the wake of scandal, his spokesperson told DRCNet he had changed his position on NEPs because "now it is not about good politics, but about good policy."
The measure sailed through the state's lower chamber, but was stalled in recent weeks in the Senate, forcing the governor's hand. McGreevey cited a public health emergency as the basis of the executive order. It will immediately allow Atlantic City, Camden, and one other New Jersey municipality to set up NEPs. Cities with high rates of HIV infection will have to apply to the state Health Department to start the programs, which have been proven to reduce the spread of AIDS, Hepatitis C, and other blood-borne infections. The order will remain in effect until December 31, 2005.
Atlantic City Health and Human Services Director Ron Cash told the Press of Atlantic City he expected to send an application to the state "immediately" so the program can get underway in a city where one of every 40 residents has HIV. "We worked so hard, we're kind of excited about it," Cash said. "We're thankful the governor has reconsidered, whatever his reason is."
Not everyone was so thankful. Both the New Jersey League of American Families and state Sen. Ron Rice (D-Newark) vowed to challenge the order in court. "It is most unfortunate that Gov. McGreevey will use his last days to promulgate something that will lead to the demise of the urban community and especially women and minorities," Rice said. "This is a sad legacy to leave."
With the issuance of McGreevey's executive order, neighboring Delaware becomes the only state in the nation that neither authorizes NEPs nor allows for the sale of needles without a prescription.