Atlantic City Council Votes to End Syringe Program at Chaotic Meeting

    Thank you, have a good evening.

    Atlantic City Council President George Tibbitt repeated the refrain again and again at a virtual meeting on July 21, as he dismissed one speaker and introduced the next. Over Zoom, he appeared perpetually exasperated, but he had to at least seem to listen. With a curt demeanor that suggested he had already made up his mind, Tibbitt sat there for hours as people pleaded for him and his fellow Council members not to close AC’s sole syringe service program (SSP).

    The testimonies—from dozens of harm reduction advocates, former drug users and public health experts, both in AC and across the country—all had a simple message: Oasis Drop-In Center, the SSP run by the South Jersey Aids Alliance (SJAA) since 2007, has saved countless lives.

    “We cannot move forward if we’re moving backwards,” said Rachel Campbell, a longtime employee of SJAA.

    A volunteer firefighter from a nearby town shared that his outfit has been receiving more and more calls to respond to overdoses. A harm reduction provider explained that so few current drug users feel comfortable telling their stories. Person after person relayed how an SSP in their own city had helped them, or how much Oasis has improved Atlantic City, or how much they wished their town would set up such programs. And almost all of them emphasized a grim fact: Overdose deaths hit a record high in 2020, reaching more than 93,000 nationwide and more than 3,000 in New Jersey alone.

    The meeting was, in short, chaotic. Apart from the technical failures we’ve come to expect during the pandemic, Council members seemed to disappear for chunks of time, President Tibbitt used a jar of discarded syringes as a prop, and members of the public complained that they had not been given the chance to speak. The head of SJAA, Carol Harney, apparently did not even have an opportunity to do so. (At one point, however, Harney’s husband called in to lambaste certain Council members for how they’ve been treating his wife.) So many participants lined up to talk that, eventually, the City Council passed a motion to cut their allotted time from three minutes to two.

    City Council President George Tibbitt holds up a jar of discarded syringes that he said he had collected over the past week and a half in AC.

     

    Still, the outcome arrived as expected: The local officials voted—by seven to two—in favor of an ordinance to repeal an earlier ordinance that allowed Oasis to function.

    “What happened at the council meeting was shameful,” Jenna Mellor, the director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, said in a press statement. “The council chose politics over public health, and residents of Atlantic City will die as a result.”

    Led by Tibbitt, a majority of City Council members insisted that AC should not have to bear so much of the responsibility of providing harm reduction services in New Jersey. Most of them argued that Oasis had contributed to an increase in syringe “litter” around the boardwalk. They complained that, because AC had only one of seven SSPs in the state, too many out-of-towners used the service.

    Tibbitt has been so incensed about this supposed syringe “litter”—which the closure of Oasis would, of course, only increase—that he took state officials on a trip to collect his haul earlier in the week.

    Councilman Aaron Randolph during one period of the meeting.

     

    It has been a disappointing and stressful summer for harm reductionists in the Garden State. In early June, Harney, the SJAA lead, was surprised to discover that City Council members were considering repealing the ordinance that allows Atlantic City’s SSP to legally operate.

    She then thought that she had uncovered a solution for everybody involved, including her detractors: Oasis would move to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. It would be a bit of a trek from the beach, where critics were complaining about discarded syringes, but still centrally located enough that many who visit, most of whom walk, could still do so. The Casino Reinvestment Authority, a state governmental agency, had also said that it would pay for renovations to Oasis’s new building, which the AC Rescue Mission ran. (SJAA would pay the rescue mission rent.) In Harney’s mind, it would be an updated social services hub, with a shelter, a drug treatment center and a harm reduction agency in the same spot. It would no longer be in the tourism district.

    But Harney soon learned about the Council’s intentions to shut the program down regardless. Outcry erupted. In early July, harm reduction advocates gathered at Firefighters Memorial, a small park between City Hall and the county building, to raise awareness.

    They had, after all, been reading the news: Commissioners in Indiana’s rural Scott County, where there was a severe HIV outbreak in 2015, voted to shutter the county’s SSP as cases decreased; before that, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice had signed harshly restrictive SSP regulations into law, which critics noted would make it more difficult to obtain sterile syringes in a state experiencing a spike in HIV cases.

    Councilman MD Hossain Morshed phones into the Council meeting to cast his vote on the SSP. (He had not voted on any of the other matters discussed.) Last week, Morshed was assaulted by men that he claimed voiced opposition to his efforts to close down Oasis.

     

    Until now, it has been widely accepted that the decision ultimately came down to New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, who also serves as the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. In 2016, the state government reached an agreement with AC, economically struggling at the time, to take control over much of the city’s finances. But that authority might not be as definitive as harm reduction advocates and state officials initially believed, and Lieutenant Governor Oliver does not seem to have the absolute power to veto City Council votes. (On top of that, advocates have grown concerned that she supported the will of the Council.)

    New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy made his own position clear—verbally, at least. “I am deeply disappointed by the Atlantic City Council’s decision to close the city’s syringe access program,” he said in a press statement. “This action will endanger some of the city’s most at-risk residents and contradicts my Administration’s comprehensive, data-driven strategy to end the opioid crisis. My administration continues to assess paths forward and we remain committed to preserving access to these evidence-based and life-saving services for Atlantic City and area residents.”

    Tibbitt and other City Council members kept alluding in the meeting to the fact that the state had “a plan,” and that the vote did not mean there would be a padlock on Oasis tomorrow. But what that plan is remains unclear, as does the future of the SSP.

    In one rather odd exchange, the city’s business administrator, Anthony Swan, reminded Tibbitt that he and the city’s health director, Dr. Wilson Washington Jr., had recommended keeping Oasis open as they considered alternatives. Tibbitt claimed he did not recall that conversation.

    “If you say so,” he said.

    Councilman Randolph during another period of the meeting.

     

    The state government, at the very least, seems to be poring over options, and Murphy remains dedicated to a harm reduction message—and funding—in theory. But, as with Atlantic City, funding for SSPs does not guarantee their existence: As state money becomes available for such programs, municipalities pass ordinances to prevent them from opening. It would seem the only viable solution is for the New Jersey government to pass legislation that prevents this sort of scenario from happening.

    Until then, it’s stuck in a position of simply trying to ameliorate the conflict.

    “I always believe in problem solving and partnerships when addressing community challenges, and I am disappointed that such collaboration did not happen in this situation with the sterile syringe exchange program in Atlantic City,” Lieutenant Governor Oliver said in a statement to Filter. “But there is still an opportunity for people to come up with a proposal that all sides can agree on to ensure this valuable service continues to be provided for people in Atlantic City and the region who are battling substance abuse.”

     


     

    Lede photograph by OlivierK via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Alex is a staff writer at Filter. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at VICE, and has been published in The New York Times MagazineThe Columbia Journalism ReviewThe Nation and The Daily Beast, among other outlets. He is also a freelance editorial consultant for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received both restricted and general support grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. Alex is currently based in Phoenix, Arizona.

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