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New Jersey lawmakers approve needle exchanges for drug users

News Day, December 11, 2006

AP - TRENTON, N.J. -- After years of debate, New Jersey's lawmakers on Monday voted to allow pilot programs that offer intravenous drug users legal access to sterile syringes.

Aimed at combatting the spread of HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases, the measure allows six municipalities to set up programs in which drug users would swap used needles for clean ones. It also provides $10 million for drug treatment and provides those exchanging needles with information and referrals for HIV testing, drug abuse treatment and health and social service programs.

Under the bill, the state health commissioner would have to file reports with the governor and Legislature on whether the program has proven effective.

It passed 49-27 in the Assembly and 23-16 in the Senate. Both houses are controlled by Democrats. It now heads to Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who said he will sign it.

"This bill addresses a growing public health crisis in New Jersey and I am pleased the Legislature has taken action," Corzine said in a statement. "I look forward to signing the bill and seeing the program implemented rapidly."

Currently, New Jersey is the only state without either a needle exchange program or one that allows syringes to be sold without a prescription.

According to research by the Office of Legislative Services, the Legislature's nonpartisan legal research arm, 11 states have statewide laws allowing needle exchange programs; 22 states and Puerto Rico have exchange programs because no law specifically prohibits it; and there are at least 184 needle exchange programs around the country.

While advocates contend needle exchanges stem the spread of disease through dirty needles, foes argue such programs enable illicit drug use.

"We have an opportunity to save thousands of lives that otherwise could be lost because of our state's failure to enact sensible syringe access policies," said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., D-Camden.

Roberts, a leading needle exchange advocate, called New Jersey's lack of access "embarrassing" given the state's staggering number residents living with HIV/AIDS.

The state ranks among the top five in the number of residents with HIV/AIDS, the annual number of new HIV/AIDS cases and the rate of infections among women.

In New Jersey, 44 percent of those with AIDS contracted it from sharing needles _ double the national average _ according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Supporters have been trying to pass a needle exchange bill in New Jersey since 1993. The Assembly approved one 2004, but the Senate never followed suit.

Under the measure approved Monday, people who run and participate in the program would have to carry program identification cards, protecting them from prosecution for carrying drug paraphernalia. There are no protections for anyone carrying drugs.

Critics seized on the program identification provision, calling it a "get-out-of-jail-free card."

The Assembly on Monday also approved legislation to allow pharmacies to sell syringes without a prescription to people over 18 years of age, but the Senate hasn't considered that proposal. Passing 50-28, that measure had even more support in the Assembly than the needle exchange pilot programs.

Under it, adults could purchase up to 10 syringes without a prescription.

Though the bills easily passed, there was no shortage of critics on both sides of the aisle.

Sen. Ronald Rice, who passionately cited links between drug, gangs and guns as a reason to ban needle access, deemed the legislation "a death penalty bill" for women and minorities, who suffer some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the state.

"This case is a death of a class of people, and they're called women and minorities," said Rice, D-Essex.

The Newark Democrat, who says needle exchange programs don't work, tried unsuccessfully to remove syringe access from the bill.

Another proposed amendment by Assemblyman Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris and Passaic, would have effectively established background checks to bar felons or state-sponsored foster parents from obtaining the needles. That idea was quickly voted down.