Atlantic City officials do not have legal authorization to start New Jersey's first needle-exchange program, according to an April 30 letter from Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey S. Blitz. Blitz first learned of the city's plans from a Press article two weeks ago, when city Health and Human Services Director Ron Cash confirmed discussions to initiate a program so heroin addicts could trade used needles for clean ones at city-operated mobile clinics. Cash said a 1999 state amendment exempts government agencies from state law criminalizing needle and syringe possession.
New Jersey is one of five states that do not allow the sale of needles without a prescription. All but New Jersey and Delaware allow needle exchange in their cities.
The relevant law allows government agencies to distribute needles and syringes only to those with a prescription, said Blitz. "There is no authority for programs to place needles and syringes in the hands of people addicted to heroin," Blitz said. "This is a program that has to be considered by the Legislature." Blitz said his edict had nothing to do with the merits of needle exchange, and declined to give his personal opinion on the issue.
Mayor Lorenzo Langford's administration appears willing to contest the edict, even in court. "We're still planning on moving forward," said Cash. "There are some legal challenges we need to address."
Shared needles are the cause of over half the HIV/AIDS cases in Atlantic City, where the HIV rate among black men is New Jersey's highest. Forty-six percent of the state's HIV infections are from sharing needles, the nation's third-highest percentage, according to the New Jersey Health Department. The national average is 25 percent. Most studies show -- and most experts agree -- needle exchange reduces the spread of HIV/AIDS without leading to an increase in drug use.