On January 18, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed harm reduction legislation that will expand syringe service programs (SSP) in the state, establish local drug overdose fatality review teams, decriminalize the possession of syringes and permit certain expungement for the possession and distribution of hypodermic needles.
“Harm reduction is a cornerstone of our strategy.”
The New Jersey legislature passed this series of bills earlier this month. Most local activists believed Gov. Murphy, who had publicly voiced his support in the past, would approve them without hesitation. He did so days later, citing harm reduction as “a cornerstone” of his public health agenda.
“Over the last four years, my administration has prioritized a comprehensive, data-driven approach to ending New Jersey’s opioid epidemic,” Governor Murphy said in a press statement. “Harm reduction is a cornerstone of our strategy, and through this legislation, we are paving the way for long-overdue expansion of syringe access and other critical services to help people with substance use disorders stay healthy, stay alive, and thrive. Furthermore, by decriminalizing syringes and fentanyl test strips, we are acknowledging that this crisis cannot be ended through criminalizing critical harm reduction supplies that prevent fatal overdose and transmission of disease.”
New Jersey–based harm reduction advocates heralded the move, applauding the governor for taking definitive action at the start of his second term.
The stroke of Murphy’s pen, perhaps most importantly, removes a massive hurdle that had practically handcuffed harm reduction activists in the state: a municipal ordinance that required cities and towns to approve SSP in their jurisdictions. The new legislation instead gives the power to New Jersey’s health department, which is generally in favor of SSP, to consider applications. City councils will only be able to control the location of services through zoning approvals.
Up until recently, many activists did not have much reason to celebrate. Over the summer, the South Jersey Aids Alliance (SJAA)—which runs just one of seven SSP in the state, Oasis Drop-In Center in Atlantic City—learned that the City Council planned to shut it down. Since 2007, the organization had fought the political whims of local lawmakers, but by June 2021, a majority of City Council members appeared to share the same opinion despite firm evidence to the contrary: that Oasis was not a lifesaving operation but rather a burden on the community which increased syringe “litter.” They also claimed that the service attracted drug users from nearby towns—a situation which, even if true, would point to the need for such services in other towns, as the new legislation will now facilitate. Though SJAA had tried to relocate Oasis outside the tourism district, most City Council members did not seem willing to compromise; in late July, they voted overwhelmingly to close it down, in a chaotic online meeting that featured the president brandishing a jar of discarded syringes as a prop.
Protests followed, and supporters held their breath as they waited to see if the state government would act. (Because Atlantic City nearly went bankrupt, the state controlled the city’s finances, many believed the agreement allowed the lieutenant governor to basically veto any City Council decision.) Months went by, though, and nothing happened.
Then in October, SJAA and three anonymous residents who use its services filed a lawsuit, noting that Oasis’s closure would only worsen an overdose crisis that has grown during the coronavirus pandemic. The legal complaint includes a count of arbitrary and capricious action, violation of plaintiffs’ rights under the New Jersey Constitution, and a violation of a New Jersey anti-discrimination law. Similar lawsuits have worked in the past; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) previously argued, for instance, that a West Virginia law essentially blocking the existence of SSP was unconstitutional. The one in AC remains pending.
Harm reduction advocates are seeking new ways to keep SSP open despite political headwinds.
For a while, the saga in Atlantic City looked as if it was mirroring a larger national trend, in which politicians apparently ignored science and effectively shut down SSP as overdose rates reached record highs. Now, however, we are seeing fresh developments, as harm reduction advocates seek new ways to keep SSP open despite political headwinds. After a majority of county commissioners decided to close the SSP in Scott County Indiana, for example, local activists found legal means to keep them open.
Ironically, the drama in Atlantic City likely fueled New Jersey’s harm reduction expansion package, which proponents had been pushing in some form for years. With the removal of the municipal ordinance requirement, Oasis can theoretically exist no matter the City Council’s perspective.
“These bills, coupled with the creation of local drug overdose fatality review teams, will strengthen our ability to save lives and further our commitment to ending the opioid crisis in New Jersey,” Gov. Murphy said.
Photograph of Gov. Murphy in 2018 by Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0