A lawsuit between Atlantic City and a local syringe service program (SSP) may be nearing its end. The city has asked a judge to throw it out. But the program reportedly isn’t budging in seeking protection from interference with its services, and wants the judge to constrain the city from further action before the state makes key decisions.
In September 2021, the South Jersey AIDS Alliance (SJAA), which operates Oasis, the state’s first and longest-running SSP, sued the city to stop it shutting the program down. But in January 2022, Governor Phil Murphy (D) signed a bill that changed the rules on authorizing SSP in New Jersey. Instead of cities and towns making the decision, the state now decides where to allow these services.
Because of that, Atlantic City’s lawyers are asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying their original ordinance closing Oasis is now “legislatively rendered invalid.”
But the risk could remain of the city harassing the SSP through zoning rules or other means, and that—related to the long-discussed possiblity of a move to a new location with expanded services—could explain SJAA’s continuation with the lawsuit. (Filter was not able to obtain comment from SJAA by publication time.)
“It shows people who use drugs and harm reduction services can’t be pushed around.”
Overall, it seems clear that state law is now on the SSP’s side, and the city basically seems to be admitting defeat. “It’s a really big deal for Atlantic City to throw in the towel because it shows people who use drugs and harm reduction services can’t be pushed around,” Jenna Mellor, executive director of New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, told Filter. “That when we fight we win, and it’s the result of a huge outpouring of solidarity and grassroots organizing.”
This conflict dates back to 2007. Council members have objected to the SSP’s location, near the city’s tourist center. They’ve claimed it is drawing people to the city to use drugs, and causing syringe litter. Such claims about SSP are commonly cited by local opponents, but are unequivocally refuted by much evidence and by public health bodies like the CDC.
Amid the Council objections, South Jersey AIDS Alliance offered to move its program to another location in the city and create a better equipped service center, paid for by the state. But city lawmakers didn’t agree to the plan, and instead the council passed an ordinance in July 2021, voting 7-2 to close the SSP.
It was slated to close in October 2021. But SJAA and three other residents sued the city on September 29, and courts agreed to let the program stay open until mid-November to allow the case to proceed.
The lawsuit remained unresolved, but in January Gov. Murphy approved several bills expanding on harm reduction services in the state. The legislation gave the state health department authority to approve or deny SSP anywhere in New Jersey. Municipal governments, which could previously veto the programs, could now merely regulate when and where these services operate in their jurisdictions. The legislation also established local drug overdose fatality review teams and decriminalized possession of syringes and fentanyl test strips.
But are these laws having their intended effect of expanding harm reduction services?
“We’re still waiting on the plan but after that the next big thing is getting these programs up and running and getting money.”
“In many ways it’s too early to tell,” Louis Di Paolo, communications director of New Jersey Policy Perspective, told Filter, “because the state is still finalizing rules and regulations for new harm reduction centers. No new programs are open yet but there is a lot of interest in new programs across the state, and the health department is identifying the most strategic communities and counties to start with.”
Over 3,000 New Jersey residents died of a suspected drug overdose in 2021. Syringe service programs have been proven by decades of research to reduce transmission of viral diseases like HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C, while also providing overdose-prevention education and resources like naloxone.
Di Paolo explained that the state government does not run harm reduction programs, but simply provides funding. And the state legislature has consistently agreed to increase funding—the main problem, he said, has always been cities and towns, who used their local powers to prevent more SSP opening up.
Now that can change. “[We need to make] sure those programs continue to get funding so they can staff up, acquire locations if they need them,” he said. “We’re still waiting on the plan but after that the next big thing is getting these programs up and running and getting money [to them].”