New Jersey is set to open multiple new syringe service programs, including in suburban and rural areas, bringing potentially lifesaving services to many people for the first time. With a recent law facilitating this and attitudes reportedly changing, the state’s expansion of harm reduction is expected to continue.
For decades now, people who use drugs and their allies have been fighting to bring more harm reduction services to New Jersey. Syringe service programs (SSP) distribute sterile supplies so people don’t have to risk of disease transmissions by sharing needles. They also provide overdose prevention resources like naloxone, other forms of support, and connections to further health and social services.
New Jersey has permitted SSP since 2006. Yet in years since, amid the devastating crisis of overdose and other harms, the state of over 9 million residents has hosted just seven authorized SSP.
In January 2022, a law signed by Governor Phil Murphy (D) changed the picture. It removed the power of local municipalities to veto proposed SSP, leaving those decisions primarily with the state Department of Health.
Twelve of New Jersey’s 21 counties will now officially have harm reduction services.
From there, it took state officials 18 months to open applications for new facilities. Almost 3,000 people died of overdose in New Jersey in 2022, and already nearly 1,800 have died this year, according to the health department and attorney general.
But in July, the Department of Health announced the new rules for opening SSP and began accepting applications from providers. On International Overdose Awareness Day, August 31, and again on October 5, it announced that a total of seven harm reduction providers have been approved to operate new services. Thirteen new sites have been authorized, meaning that 12 of New Jersey’s 21 counties will now officially have harm reduction services.
The state is also providing funds to support some of the new programs, if they are approved for a grant.
Here are the new services announced:
* Newton: The Center for Prevention and Counseling will operate a fixed site.
* Newark: Integrity House will operate a fixed site and Newark Community Street Team will operate both fixed and mobile services.
* East Orange and Plainfield: North Jersey Community Research Initiative will operate mobile services.
* Elizabeth: PROCEED Inc. will operate a fixed site, and offer mobile services throughout Union County and nearby Newark.
* Monmouth County and Ocean County: The Visiting Nurse Association will operate mobile services throughout both counties, including in Asbury Park, Toms River, Brick Township and Long Branch.
* Cumberland County and Cape May County: South Jersey AIDS Alliance—which runs an existing facility in Atlantic City—will offer fixed sites in Vineland and Rio Grande, and mobile services in several neighboring towns.
The list indicates that services will now reach entirely new corners of the state. New Jersey’s seven existing SSP are mostly concentrated in urban areas—Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Trenton, Camden, Asbury Park and Atlantic City. But the new services will reach people in need in suburban and rural areas—like Sussex County on the state line with Pennsylvania and New York, and Cape May County in the state’s southern coastal region. Some major urban centers like Newark, Elizabeth and East Orange will also get new and expanded services.
“We can dramatically expand syringe services, which we’re seeing happen now.”
Jenna Mellor, executive director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, told Filter that still more harm reduction services should be coming soon.
“We expect more, we expect two from New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition,” she said. “This is going to be a rolling process. The change in the law “means we can dramatically expand syringe services, which we’re seeing happen now.”
Speaking of the newly authorized programs, Mellor said, “Some can hopefully launch right away because they’ve been laying the foundation for this; others may need time to train up harm reduction specialists and learn syringe services best practices.”
The battle over access to harm reduction has previously turned ugly. In 2021, Atlantic City lawmakers tried to shut down the only SSP in town. The program, run by the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, then sued the city. After over a year of resistance, it won its fight to keep its doors open.
“Normalizing syringe programs has been a big part of what made it a lot easier.”
The Atlantic City confrontation demonstrated why a change in state law was needed. Now, instead of elected officials in cities and towns having the the power to veto or shut down SSP, the health department reviews existing or prospective services, and can provide state funding to help pay for them.
Backlash from local residents, businesses or politicians—in the form of complaints, campaigns and even lawsuits—commonly targets harm reduction programs. States as red as West Virginia and as blue as California have seen efforts to shut down or restrict SSP. But experts reached by Filter agreed that in New Jersey, much progress has been made in gaining wide political support for harm reduction, because of how deeply the crisis has affected communities all over the state.
“Normalizing syringe programs has been a big part of what made it a lot easier,” Eddie Frierson, statewide harm reduction manager at the Hyacinth Foundation, told Filter. Frierson manages three of the state’s seven existing SSP, and has witnessed both resistance and acceptance among different cities and lawmakers.
“A lot of times people [believed] that syringe programs were in the way of their communities, that there would be an influx of ‘bad people’ coming into their communities,” he said. “That’s totally changed now—not 100 percent, but we’re getting better every year.”
“We need to keep this momentum going until every community has access to harm reduction centers nearby.”
While harm reduction advocates are welcoming the new developments, they’re also clear that New Jersey is still far behind where it needs to be.
“We need to keep this momentum going until every community has access to harm reduction centers nearby,” Marleina Ubel, policy analyst and state policy fellow at New Jersey Policy Perspective, told Filter. “We still have many counties without a fixed harm reduction site. There’s no place anywhere that is untouched by this issue.”
“We need to see a continuation and increase of funding,” Ubel continued. “We have been seeing a steady stream of harm reduction funds in the state budget over the last five years; I would like to see lawmakers push to keep it in there.”