New York Times Examines Debate Over Access to Clean Needles, AIDS Epidemic in New Jersey
The New York Times on Sunday profiled the political debate in New Jersey over proposed legislation that would decriminalize the purchase and possession of needles in an attempt to reduce the spread of hepatitis C and HIV through injection drug use (Sullivan, New York Times, 1/11). A recent report released by the New Jersey Drug Policy Project-Drug Policy Alliance found that approximately 46% of reported HIV cases in New Jersey are related to injection drug use. Sharing contaminated needles to inject drugs is the leading cause of both HIV and hepatitis C infections in New Jersey, according to the report. New Jersey ranks fifth in HIV prevalence in the United States, and the state has the third-highest pediatric AIDS prevalence and the highest percentage of HIV-positive women in the country, according to the report (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/5/03). Although injection drug use has become the primary source of new HIV/AIDS cases in the state, New Jersey is one of only a few remaining states that requires a prescription in order to purchase needles, the Times reports. State Health Commissioner Clifton Lacy and Gov. James McGreevey (D) have called for the legalization of programs that would provide drug users access to clean needles, saying that the issue is "no longer a matter of condoning or condemning drug abuse but an urgent health problem," according to the Times.
Previous Legislative Attempts
Only one bill calling for needle-exchange programs has made it out of the state Senate Health, Human Services and Seniors Committee, and no proposed legislation has made it to the floor for a vote, the Times reports (New York Times, 1/11). New Jersey state Sen. Joseph Vitale (D) in December withdrew from consideration a bill (S 2794) that would have allowed the sale and possession of needles without a prescription (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/5/03). The bill was "sidetracked by internal legislative conflict" but may be reintroduced in the next legislative session, according to the Times. "When you talk about why things are the way they are in New Jersey, part of it is no one has had the guts on a state political level to stand up and say we have a public health crisis," Rosanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Project, said, adding that the state is "decades behind the curve" because of its high AIDS prevalence rate and because it is one of only two states that does not provide some sort of access to clean needles.
State Sen. Ronald Rice (D), who has been one of the strongest opponents of needle access programs over the last decade, said that allowing such legislation would do little to help stem the spread of HIV. He added that the programs "encourag[e] people to go out and do something that is illegal." Rice said, "The key to addressing the HIV problem is ... to put more money into prevention and education, into treatment facilities and into research." The New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police also opposes needle access legislation. However, state Sen. Robert Singer (R), who co-sponsored the bill in the last legislative session, said that such programs make sense from a financial standpoint and would save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars it spends each year on health care for poor HIV/AIDS patients. "The belief that if you make it accessible, people are going to run out, buy needles and become drug addicts is ludicrous," Singer said (New York Times, 1/11).