New Jersey State Assembly Committee Approves Legislation Promoting Access to Clean Needles
The New Jersey Assembly's Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday approved 7-2 two pieces of legislation aimed at helping injection drug users gain access to clean needles in an effort to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C in the state, the Gannett/Asbury Park Press reports (Stainton, Gannett/Asbury Park Press, 9/24). The first bill -- known as the Bloodborne Disease Harm Reduction Act (A 3256) -- would authorize cities in New Jersey to sponsor local needle-exchange programs that are affiliated with hospitals, clinics or health departments and offer additional health-related services. The second bill (A 3257) would allow individuals over age 18 to purchase from a pharmacy up to 10 needles without a prescription; currently, New Jersey is one of only four states that require a doctor's prescription for needle purchases and one of only two states that bans both nonprescription needle sales and needle-exchange programs (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 9/20). A 3256 now goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, while A 3257 goes to the speaker of the Assembly, who will decide whether to send the bill to the full state Assembly for a vote, according to the Inquirer.
More than 100 audience members were present Thursday at the committee hearing on the two bills, during which HIV/AIDS statistics for the state were "cited repeatedly," the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. New Jersey had the highest HIV prevalence rate among women last year, and the state's rate of injection drug-related HIV infections is almost twice the national average, according to the Department of Health and Senior Services (Ritter, Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/24). As of June 30, there were a total of 64,219 HIV/AIDS cases in the state, more than 33% of which were transmitted through shared needles, according to the AP/PhillyBurbs.com (McAlpin, AP/PhillyBurbs.com, 9/23). "It has taken us much too long to get to this point," Assembly member Loretta Weinberg (D) said at the opening of the hearing (Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/24). Health Commissioner Clifton Lacy said, "We find ourselves today at a critical point in the course of public health in New Jersey," adding, "We have the opportunity today to bring into our state proven methods of harm reduction and disease prevention." However, some members of the Assembly and the audience said that a needle-exchange program is not the "proper approach" to prevent HIV and hepatitis C transmission among IDUs, according to the AP/PhillyBurbs.com. According to Richard Smith, a retired epidemiologist who participated in the creation of the first public health response to HIV/AIDS, increasing access to clean needles will not stop illicit drug use. "The agenda here is to legalize drugs," he said. State Sen. Ronald Rice (D) said that by implementing needle-exchange programs, New Jersey is choosing a less expensive program over more expensive treatment methods (AP/PhillyBurbs.com, 9/23). Assembly member Eric Munoz (R) said, "Needle-exchange programs fail to address the central issue," adding, "Our focus must be on providing the public with prevention and treatment programs" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/24).