On July 6, New Jersey harm reduction organizations met at Firefighters Memorial, a small park between City Hall and the county building in Atlantic City. Representatives from groups including the South Jersey AIDS Alliance (SJAA), the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance and the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition had gathered for an impromptu demonstration. The wind was blowing hard, but that didn’t prevent the speakers from making known their message for Governor Phil Murphy and the Atlantic City Council: AC’s syringe service program (SSP) must not be dismantled.
“We want to cheer for how effective Atlantic City’s program is,” Jenna Mellor, the co-director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, told Filter ahead of the event.
They’ve been doing so as loudly as possible. Mellor and fellow activists have been on a mission since early June, when they learned that SJAA’s Oasis Drop-In Center—the first SSP in the state—could soon face extinction. The Atlantic City Council had introduced an ordinance that could repeal an existing ordinance and imminently shutter the program. It came as a surprise to many harm reductionists.
At first, SJAA head Carol Harney thought she had discovered a solution to address her opponents’ concerns. Using funds from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, a state governmental agency, they would move Oasis away from the bustling, tourist-centric boardwalk to a new building operated by the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. The SSP would be farther away from the beach, but it would still be walking distance for most of its participants. Harney imagined that the new location could have been a robust one-stop shop: a shelter, a drug treatment center and a harm reduction agency all on the same property. She was optimistic. But the plan—much to her shock and confusion—did not materialize.
At a virtual meeting on June 16, City Council members discussed repealing the ordinance that allows for a syringe access program. For advocates, it was an intense and emotional affair.
“If anyone on this council is oblivious enough to believe that our program—our program—is what causes drug users to flock to our city, we could alleviate your concerns very easily,” Mike Nees, an SJAA employee and 15-year resident of Atlantic City, pleaded to the Council over Zoom. “Man up, come volunteer.”
Many Council members had framed the idea around that very notion. Several of them, including City Council President George Tibbitt, asked why so few other municipalities in New Jersey had SSP—there are currently seven in the state—and why drug users in neighboring areas were coming to Atlantic City to access harm reduction services. Several also complained, without evidence, of “syringe litter” on the boardwalk and beach, prompting Councilwoman Latoya Dunston to explain that the SSP has quantifiably decreased syringe litter since it first opened nearly 15 years ago.
The implication seemed clear: As AC experiences a fresh wave of gentrification and tourism, the majority of the City Council wants AC to appeal to certain types of people—at the expense of others, namely drug users, they wish would simply disappear.
“I fight for syringe access because I’ve seen what it did in Atlantic City—reducing HIV infections, saving lives.”
But the decision ultimately rests not with the City Council, but with New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, who wields the power of veto. In 2016, the New Jersey state government reached a deal with AC to take over much of the city’s finances; in short, Oasis’s future is ultimately down to Oliver, who reportedly supports the City Council ending the program.
It has been an odd development—according to activists, Oliver had previously seemed to hold the opposite view. For his part, Governor Murphy has repeatedly pledged to increase state funding for harm reduction centers, and New Jersey recently expanded access to naloxone. But it’s not clear how Murphy will act in the end, nor how much influence he has over Oliver.
“Governor Murphy believes that harm reduction centers are critical to battling the opioid crisis,” Alyana Alfaro Post, Murphy’s press secretary, told Filter. “The governor’s office has been in communication with the City Council to offer support for preserving these services within Atlantic City. We remain committed to ensuring that Atlantic City and area residents continue to have access to these evidence-based and lifesaving services.”
Activists believe that the Council will vote on July 21, but have not yet received official confirmation. They worry that another meeting, where Council members are free to express more stigmatizing beliefs about SSP, will only make matters worse.
“I’m a proud product of Atlantic County,” Mellor told Filter. “I fight for syringe access because I’ve seen what it did in Atlantic City—reducing HIV infections, saving lives.”
“I’m incredibly angry to see that the City Council is willing to put people’s lives at risk,” she continued. “We will protect syringe access in AC and fight to have it in every corner of our state.”