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Senate Panel Advances Needle Exchange Bill
Committee adds $10M for treatment and limits the program to six cities and five years

Newark Star-Ledger, Sept. 19, 2006

by Robert Schwaneberg and Tom Hester, Star-Ledger Staff

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 of AIDS.

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 illegal.

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 illegal activity."

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 needles.

"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 grocery shelves.

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."

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