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NJ Court Rejects Needle-Exchange
  Court tosses needle-swap effort in resort
See EDITORIAL following article.
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Newark Star-Ledger Staff
An Atlantic City program intended to fight the spread of AIDS by providing clean needles to drug addicts is illegal, a state appeals court ruled yesterday.
Opponents of needle-exchange programs welcomed the unanimous ruling, saying it could help their efforts to block a pilot program authorized last fall by then-Gov. James E. McGreevey.
The three-judge appeals court ruled that anyone, including municipal officials, who distributed syringes to drug addicts "would be subject to prosecution as an accomplice to the addict's illegal use of drugs."
The court added that it made no difference that the city had established the program in response to "a public health crisis" due to the spread of injection-related HIV and hepatitis C.
"Atlantic City and its employees are not exempt from the (criminal) code provisions prohibiting the possession, use and distribution of drugs and drug paraphernalia simply because they adopted a needle-exchange program for beneficent reasons," the court said. It declared the June 2004 ordinance establishing the program invalid.
Yesterday's ruling upheld a decision last September by Superior Court Judge Valerie Armstrong. Partly in response to Armstrong's decision, McGreevey issued an executive order in October authorizing pilot needle-exchange programs to be run by three municipalities on an experimental basis.
In June, Appellate Division Judge Stephen Skillman issued an injunction temporarily blocking McGreevey's order until an appeals panel decides whether it is valid. Skillman was also the author of yesterday's ruling.
Peter Asseltine, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, which is defending McGreevey's order, said it is based on the governor's emergency powers and raises legal issues not resolved by yesterday's ruling.
But lawmakers who went to court challenging McGreevey's needle-exchange pilot program were delighted.
Assemblyman Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris) called it "a victory for the health and safety of New Jersey's citizens." Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) said the way to slow the spread of AIDS is not to give addicts clean needles but treatment to get them off drugs.
"You can't keep people junkies all their lives," Rice said.
Their lawyer, Michael Laffey of Holmdel, said yesterday's ruling "doesn't decide our case" but "it certainly helps." Skillman concluded his ruling by remarking that the power to authorize needle exchange programs "rests exclusively with the Legislature," the very argument the lawmakers are making. Laffey said he expects Skillman will be on the appellate panel that decides their case.
Robert Sandman, the Atlantic City lawyer who argued the city's case for free, said he is weighing two options: asking the New Jersey Supreme Court to review yesterday's ruling or joining in defense of McGreevey's order.
"The incidence of AIDS and HIV in this little community is extraordinary," Sandman said. He said 1 in 38 African-Americans in Atlantic City, many of them sexually active young people, carries the virus.
"This is a recipe for disaster," Sandman said.
Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance-New Jersey, said the ruling "puts that much more pressure on the Legislature to do the right thing." A bill authorizing needle- exchange programs passed the Assembly 43-28 last October but then stalled in the Senate Health Committee.
Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the committee chairman, said yesterday he will renew his push to legalize a needle-exchange program.
"The longer we delay, the more lives we lose to dirty needles," Vitale said.
Appellate Division Judges Jane Grall and Amy Piro Chambers joined Skillman's ruling yesterday.
EDITORIAL Newark Star-Ledger
Pass a needle exchange law
Saturday, August 20, 2005
For a time it looked as if the New Jersey cities hit hardest by AIDS might be able to decide for themselves whether to hand out free clean needles to drug users.
Exchanging clean needles for dirty ones is a strategy other cities and states have used to reduce the HIV infection rates in drug users, who spread the virus when they share needles to shoot up.
But a Superior Court judge has ruled that an Atlantic City needle exchange ordinance violates state laws prohibiting distribution of drug paraphernalia. The state Legislature is the only entity that can change that, the judge said.
That means it is likely the courts will also strike down the executive order former Gov. James E. McGreevey issued last year allowing municipalities to get state Health Department permission to run needle exchange programs.
McGreevey's order and the Atlantic City ordinance were backdoor strategies. Both were attempts to get around legislators who keep blocking attempts to pass needle exchange legislation.
Some lawmakers say the state should be trying to get people off drugs, not handing them their needles. New Jersey must do both.
This state has the fifth-largest AIDS-HIV problem of all the states. From early on, intravenous drug use was at the heart of New Jersey's AIDS problem. It is the reason so many women -- whether drug users themselves or the sexual partners of drug users -- have been infected. Good needle exchange programs can help break that deadly chain of transmission.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that comprehensive needle programs -- which also provide safe- sex counseling, health screenings and drug treatment -- reduce HIV and other health problems without increasing drug use or drug-related crime.
It is time lawmakers gave New Jersey the tools to fight AIDS. A needle exchange law is one of them.
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