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April 30, 2005 - The Star-Ledger (NJ)

2 N.J. Cities Gear Up For Needle Exchanges

Atlantic City and Camden Would Be First

By Susan K. Livio, Star-Ledger Staff

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Atlantic City and Camden met a state Health Department deadline yesterday and volunteered to become the first two communities in New Jersey to legally use the controversial strategy of needle exchange to stem the spread of AIDS in their hard-hit communities.

The experimental programs could be operating by early summer, assuming health officials approve the cities' applications by a May 6 deadline, local officials said.

Health activists and lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to pass a law for nearly a decade to permit syringe exchanges -- giving intravenous-drug users a clean needle for every used syringe they surrender.

Opponents have succeeded in blocking the effort by arguing the practice condones illegal drug use, and by questioning the veracity of the studies that claim the programs are effective.

When it was clear the Legislature would not support needle-exchange legislation last fall, Gov. James E. McGreevey issued an executive order three weeks before his Nov. 15 resignation that allowed as many as three cities to launch pilot programs.

Only Atlantic City and Camden, which adopted local ordinances creating needle-exchange programs last year, came forward, health spokeswoman Donna Leusner said late yesterday.

McGreevey at the time said the order was necessary to address the "public health emergency" of AIDS transmission between addicts, their sexual partners and their newborn children. Fifty-one percent of New Jersey's 62,200 AIDS and HIV cases are attributed to injection-drug use, according to state data.

Yesterday, Atlantic City's health officer, Ronald Cash, praised McGreevey and acting Gov. Richard Codey for their efforts, saying he and others in the city "were waiting and praying for the Trenton politics to loosen up. Thank God Governor Codey didn't put a stop to it. Most people in Atlantic City and Camden want to see this happen."

Yet a lawsuit filed in December to overturn the order is still "working its way through the courts," said Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), one of four lawmakers who filed the suit. "My hope is the court will realize there is something happening and recognize there is a new level of immediacy.

"This end-run around the legislative process and the voice of the people is a very bad way to set policy, especially on an issue that affects so many people," Kean said.

One of every 40 residents in Atlantic City is infected with the virus that causes AIDS, city health officials have said. One-half of all cases are attributed to injection drug use or sex with intravenous drug users.

There are 1,340 people living in Camden with HIV and AIDS, representing more than half of the county's 2,430 cases, said Anthony Lingo, manager of special grant projects for Camden's Department of Health and Human Services.

"This is not going away by happenstance. We have to take definitive action," Lingo said.

The state invited nine cities with the highest HIV and AIDS rates to apply. They are: Atlantic City, Camden, East Orange, Elizabeth, Irvington, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson and Trenton. To qualify, according to the state's application, cities need a minimum of 750 people with AIDS/HIV; they must show injection drug use is responsible for a significant portion of their AIDS/HIV cases; and elected officials must have passed an ordinance supporting a needle-exchange program.

Of the nine cities, only Atlantic City and Camden approved such an ordinance. They passed laws last year, but the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office successfully challenged Atlantic City's ordinance, preventing the cities from moving ahead legally with needle exchanges.

In applying for the pilot program, the cities also needed to describe how it would be funded, how it would operate and how it would link addicts to treatment. The executive order did not include any money.

Camden will operate a mobile exchange program with a nonprofit agency; Atlantic City, also working with a community AIDS organization, will operate mobile and stationary locations, local officials said.

"Our hope, once the programs are up and running, is that people will see it works," said Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey, who helped the two cities prepare their needle-exchange programs. "Our goal is ultimately to pass the bill."

New Jersey and Delaware are the only two states in the nation that neither permit needle exchange nor allow over-the-counter syringe sales.

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