On January 10, the New Jersey legislature passed two bills that will enable the expansion of syringe service programs (SSP), removing key barriers throughout the state. The legislation now heads to the desk of Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, who is expected to sign it soon. He has publicly supported such measures.
The Syringe Decriminalization Bill will decriminalize the possession of syringes, even though it was already legal for a person to purchase up to 10 at a pharmacy, and permit expungement of past convictions for syringe possession. The Syringe Access Expansion Bill, on the other hand, will make it easier for SSP to open in towns and cities across New Jersey; it drops the requirement for municipal ordinances to allow such services, which has been a longstanding hurdle.
In short, the municipal ordinance requirement meant that towns and cities had the power to decide whether or not to authorize an SSP. The new legislation will mean that the state’s health department, which is generally supportive of SSP, will consider applications instead. City councils will now only have the ability to control the location of the service through zoning approvals. They will not be able to block the opening of an SSP solely on political whims.
“The municipal ordinance came up again and again and again. It was the single biggest barrier.”
The development had been a long time coming, and harm reduction advocates were not sure up until the last minute if the votes would fall their way. Jenna Mellor, the co-director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, who helped push for the access bill, had wondered for years why SSP had become so beleaguered. Especially in a state where there’s plenty of attention to the overdose crisis; like much of the rest of the country, New Jersey has watched as death rates have soared. As well as providing sterile syringes to prevent disease transmission, SSP provide naloxone and many other resources and referrals to protect life and health.
“I did a research project in graduate school to learn more about why syringe access was the way it was here,” Mellor told Filter. “And the municipal ordinance came up again and again and again. It was the single biggest barrier.”
The news is particularly good for harm reductionists in Atlantic City, who have recently been in a battle with the city to keep its sole SSP up and running. Since 2007, South Jersey AIDS Alliance (SJAA) has run the Oasis Drop-In Center, one of only seven SSP in the entire state. But in the summer, CEO Carol Harney learned that the City Council had plans to shut the center down—even though she had believed that her plan to relocate Oasis outside the tourism district would ease local politicians’ concerns.
The move never happened. At the end of July, City Council members voted to close Oasis in a chaotic online meeting. Advocates plead their case for hours, highlighting how programs like Oasis save lives. But many of the council members cited the often-debunked concern that the SSP was increasing syringe litter, and criticized it for attracting out-of-towners to use its services.
Ironically, it may have been the high-profile Atlantic City saga—as Mellor said—that put the bill “into overdrive.”
Then in September, SJAA sued the city, and a judge issued a temporary restraining order that let Oasis remain open until a final verdict was reached. The lawsuit remains active.
Now, should Governor Murphy sign the Syringe Access Bill, Oasis could theoretically exist regardless of any City Council member’s opinion.
Ironically, it may have been the high-profile Atlantic City saga—as Mellor said—that put the bill “into overdrive,” bringing together a vocal coalition of attorneys, public health experts, academics and SSP participants. The press, amid rising overdose rates nationwide, paid attention and the council’s stigmatization of SSP seems ultimately to have backfired.
“Today’s vote secures health services for some of the state of New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents,” Harney said in a press statement. “Harm reduction programs have a proven history of reducing the incident rate of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne pathogens and providing a bridge to drug treatment and nonjudgmental care. I commend our legislators for trusting science rather than stigma.”