Atlantic City looks poised to end the its 14-year-old needle exchange program, a decision that some fear could have devastating consequences.
City Council members will vote Wednesday night on whether to pass an ordinance championed by Council President George Tibbit that would end the exchange program and consequently its ancillary treatment services.
“The problem is what’s going to happen is if we close in 30 days, people are still going to be using syringes and there’s going to be no incentive for them to dispose of them properly,” said Carol Harney, the CEO of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, which operates the needle exchange program out of the Oasis center on Tennessee Avenue.
Tibbit and other supporters of scrapping the exchange program have painted their position as one of public safety amid stray needles and people from outside Atlantic City coming in for services.
“You see our streets, we gotta take our streets back,” Tibbit said. “This is a family destination. It’s a tourist attraction, and we can’t have what’s going on.”
In a letter published in The Press of Atlantic City, Council Vice President Kaleem Shabazz acknowledged the “severity of the opioid and drug crisis” in Atlantic City and the country, but argued it was not fair for his municipality to be one of only seven across the state to have exchange programs.
“The solution is not to leave Atlantic City alone to deal with this very serious health, social and quality of life problem,” he wrote.
Harney rejected the claim that a large numbers of out of-town drug users are coming into the city for the needle exchange program. Though the way the law is structured prevents the AIDS Alliance from collecting people’s address, Harney said a small sampling of around 100 people showed 90% of those who availed themselves to Oasis’ services lived within two miles of the center.
Needle exchange programs like the one in Atlantic City not only help reduce transmission of blood-borne diseases, but they are also proven to help reduce addiction and increase public safety by reducing the number of discarded needles in communities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Harney said the percentage of people who return used needles at Oasis is in the 90s.
New needle exchange program users are also five times more likely to enter drug treatment and three times more likely to stop using drugs than those who don’t use the programs, the CDC found.
Harney said the real reason council members want to end the program in Atlantic City is redevelopment.
“One of the things that the city consistently says is that folks are coming to Atlantic City for social services and in reality, that’s not what we see. People are coming here for economic development,” she said.
In fact, the South Jersey AIDS Alliance would not mind moving from the Oasis center as long as a new location would still be easily accessible to people who walk, as is currently the case, she said.
However, she added, the AIDS Alliance has been rebuffed when proposing different sites, with Council members seemingly intent on moving the group to a non-permanent location in favor of redevelopment projects and at the expense of organizations that offer social services.
“I expect that there will be other social services after us that will be targeted for removal from Atlantic City because the current government doesn’t believe that there should be social services in Atlantic City,” she said.
A vote to repeal the needle exchange program would also hurt the AIDS Alliance’s other services, which include free drug treatment; medical, housing and food assistance; and free distribution of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, she added.
“We know at least 50 people in the last year that our services had prevented overdoses for, and we think that is probably the most emergent and serious implication that will happen with us closing the doors,” Harney said.
Atlantic City is currently under state control. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s press team did not immediately respond to a question about whether the governor would step in if the Atlantic City Council repeals the needle exchange program.
Asked if she fears ending the program would lead to people dying on the street, Harney was blunt in her response.
“Absolutely,” she said.