After a full day of public hearings and backroom bargaining, the state
Senate Health Committee reached a compromise last night on legislation
aimed at combating the spread of AIDS by allowing addicts to exchange
dirty needles for clean ones.
The bill (S-494) was approved 5-2, with one abstention, after being
amended to limit needle exchange programs to six municipalities and
subject them to re-evaluation at the end of five years. It was also
changed to include $10 million for drug treatment programs, which some
senators insisted should be the state's priority.
The committee deadlocked and took no action on companion legislation that
would have allowed pharmacies to sell up to 10 syringes without a
prescription. Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of that bill
(S-823) and the committee chairman, said, "We all want to have further
discussion and a little more research."
Gov. Jon Corzine strongly supported the needle-exchange bill and had
chastised his fellow Democrats who control the Senate for blocking it. In
April, Corzine said it was "unconscionable" that New Jersey leaders have
"sat on our hands" by failing to provide access to clean needles to combat
the spread of the AIDS virus.
Yesterday, Health and Senior Services Commissioner Fred Jacobs told
lawmakers the state "should not delay another minute" in providing access
to clean needles. He said New Jersey is "the only state in the nation that
has failed to give communities the tools they need" to combat the spread
In July, Delaware established a pilot needle exchange program, leaving New
Jersey as the only state that has no such program and also forbids the
sale of syringes without a prescription.
After hearing from Jacobs and other witnesses, the committee took a lunch
break that stretched for hours as Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex)
met with committee members and helped broker the compromise.
The bill must also be approved by the Budget and Appropriations Committee
because of the $10 million for treatment programs, and then go to the full
Senate and Assembly.
The legislation would allow up to six cities or towns to apply to the
state Health Department to begin demonstration programs. Camden and
Atlantic City have already expressed interest. Atlantic City attempted to
set up its own program but last year a state appeals court ruled it was
Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), who sponsored the needle-exchange legislation,
said the compromise version is "not perfect, but I'm not here to be the
enemy of the good." Her original version would have allowed any
municipality to establish such a program.
Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey, said
the bill's approval was "a huge step" and "really historic." She said it
was the first time in her 13 years of lobbying that such a bill won
approval in the Senate Health Committee, which last year killed a
needle-exchange program passed by the Assembly.
Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean) joined four Democrats on the committee in
voting for the bill, while Sens. Thomas Kean (R-Union) and Diane Allen
(R-Burlington) voted no.
"I oppose needle-exchange programs," Kean said. "I think the better course
of action is treatment and education programs." He added that giving out
needles "circumvents law enforcement activities and aids what is an
Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) voted for the amendment adding $10 million for
drug treatment programs but abstained on the bill itself. As he long has
done, Rice insisted that intravenous drug abusers need treatment, not free
"A free needle guarantees they remain an addict," Rice said. By pursuing
that policy, he predicted, "We're going to wipe out generation after
generation of people of a certain class -- namely minorities and women."
Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group in
Washington, D.C., said numerous studies have shown needle-exchange
programs do not increase drug abuse.
"What I see is benefit without risk," Lurie said.
David Evans, executive director of the Drug-Free Schools Coalition, said
needle-exchange programs are "rooted in defeatism." He argued the state
should concentrate on fighting addiction, as would any parent whose child
was hooked on drugs.
"If my kid came to me with a heroin problem and I gave him a needle, I
think anyone would interpret that as a callous and cold act," Evans said.
Jacobs, the state health commissioner, said replacing HIV-infected needles
with clean ones is a basic public health measure on a par with killing
mosquitoes that spread the West Nile virus or pulling "bad spinach" from
Addicts will "be on drugs with or without these free syringes," Jacobs
said. "If you don't have infected syringes, you don't pass the infection."