Atlantic City’s syringe service program (SSP) was due to shut down on October 12. That was the date Carol Harney, the president of the South Jersey Aids Alliance (SJAA), understood as the last legal day of operation. SJAA had run the Oasis Drop-In Center, one of only seven SSP in New Jersey, since 2007, and now it stood on the brink.
But then SJAA, along with three anonymous residents who use the services, decided to sue the city. On September 29, they filed a lawsuit with the New Jersey Superior Court, saying Oasis’s closure would only exacerbate an overdose crisis that had worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.
Harney said that a judge has issued a temporary restraining order in response, allowing Oasis to remain open for another month, until-mid November. She expects that opening arguments will begin around November 12, and that Oasis will be able to stay operational until a final verdict is reached.
The legal complaint includes a count of arbitrary and capricious action, violation of plaintiffs’ rights under the New Jersey Constitution, and a violation of New Jersey anti-discrimination law. Other lawsuits have been filed on similar grounds by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which argued that a West Virginia law essentially blocking the existence of SSP was unconstitutional.
“Our intel told us over a month ago they were going to do this,” City Council President George Tibbitt told The Press of Atlantic City. “We know that we followed the statute and follow the letter of the law, so we’re going to give our attorneys an opportunity to review it.” (Tibbitt did not respond to Filter’s request for comment by publication time.)
“We were never able to meet with any City Council members,” Harney told Filter. “The time has elapsed. There’s no ability for the City Council to pass another ordinance.”
The lawsuit might be the final move in a political battle that lasted much of the summer, in which SJAA tried to appease the concerns of Council members, many of whom touted claims about Oasis that the organization repeatedly disputes—including that mostly out-of-towners were using the SSP, and that the services had led to an increase in syringe “litter.” They also argued that other municipalities should open up their own programs instead, even though that remains a difficult feat when local ordinances would be required.
“A lawsuit is based on facts, public health data and anti-discrimination law. We look forward to arguing those points.”
Much of the problem seems to center on the Council’s notion of how to revitalize Atlantic City’s economy; it wanted Oasis to relocate out of the tourism district near the heavily trafficked beach and casinos or become a mobile unit, which SJAA has long brushed off because most of their clients walk to the facility. Earlier this year, Harney thought she had uncovered a solution to quell officials’ concerns: Oasis would move into a building owned by the Atlantic City Rescue Mission—a place far enough from the boardwalk, but still walkable for most of her clients who get there on foot. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, a state governmental agency, would pay for renovations. A new social services hub would be born.
To her surprise, the plans never materialized, and in June, Harney and other harm reduction activists caught wind that the Council would soon vote to shutter the SSP. They protested, but the vote was ultimately scheduled for a month later.
Then, during a chaotic virtual meeting in late July, the City Council heard testimony from dozens of harm reduction advocates, current and former drug users and public health experts from across the country. They all explained, in passionate pleas, that Oasis has saved countless lives. One caller after another offered up their experiences—how an SSP in their own city had helped them, or how much Oasis had improved Atlantic City, or how they had always wished a syringe service program would be set up in their town.
At one point, President Tibbitt said that he did not recall a conversation between the city’s business administrator, Anthony Swan, and the city’s health director, Dr. Wilson Washington Jr., who had discussed alternatives for keeping Oasis open.
In the end, the Council voted—by a margin of seven to two—in favor of shutting down Oasis. (The decision repealed an earlier ordinance that allowed the SSP to function.)
Advocates had also held out hope that the state government, which took control of Atlantic City’s finances to avoid a lingering bankruptcy in early 2019, could veto any action taken by the Council. That turned out, it appeared, not to be the case. A spokesperson for the governor said his office “does not comment on pending litigation.”
Having taken the matter to court, Harney remains optimistic.
“Until now, until the lawsuit, all the events leading up to the close of the syringe access program have been premised on stigma and misinformation,” she said. “A lawsuit is based on facts, public health data and anti-discrimination law. We look forward to arguing those points.”
Photograph by Jason Mrachina via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0