Protesters march to save Oasis, Atlantic City’s only harm reduction center and syringe access program, in Atlantic City on Oct. 6. [Daniella Heminghaus]
When Domenick Scrivanich was homeless and addicted to heroin, he could think only of his next fix.
“The number one goal was to get drugs and to be as high as often as possible,” Scrivanich said. “It didn’t matter if we had clean needles or dirty needles, we were going to get them into our bloodstream no matter what.”
But public health workers at a safe-syringe site in Newark made sure he had clean syringes, as well as food and other support services. Now eight years clean, Scrivanich is a devout believer in the benefits of harm reduction centers.
“When I would go there, it was just a safe environment where I knew I wouldn’t get hassled by police or jumped or beaten. And I was able to save myself from contracting HIV, hep C, and everything else,” he said. “These programs work.”
That’s why Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) hopes a bill she introduced last year to expand access to harm reduction centers will become law in these dwindling weeks before the current legislative session ends in early January. The measure is scheduled to be heard Monday by the Assembly Health Committee. A similar bill introduced by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) is stalled in the Senate.
Current law permits only municipalities to open harm reduction centers. Huttle’s bill would allow any entity to open such a center, with approval from the state health commissioner — and allow only the commissioner to close it.
Huttle introduced the bill in October 2020. A controversy over a syringe-access program in Atlantic City made it a priority for her now, she said.
Officials there last summer ordered a needle exchange program called Oasis to close, a divisive decision that prompted supporters to protest, a judge to order it to remain open, and the program’s provider to file a lawsuit to save it. On Friday, Superior Court Judge Michael Blee ordered Oasis to continue operating until further notice.
“Absolutely, what happened in Atlantic City has put it in the forefront,” Huttle said. “When we look at syringe-access programs, we do know they are essential to public health, and they do save lives. This has bipartisan support nationally, so I am hoping that it passes committee, and we can vote on this by the end of the year.”
State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli has long voiced support for harm reduction centers.
“A legislative solution is the only one that can preserve access to these services throughout the state, bring New Jersey in line with national best practices, and make strides towards the Murphy administration’s goal to end the HIV epidemic and opioid crisis,” Persichilli said.
Huttle, who’s retiring at the end of the current legislative session, also sponsored a companion bill intended to repeal a 1987 law that makes it a crime to have or distribute a syringe without a medical prescription. That bill is scheduled to be heard Monday, too, by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
Experts from the American Medical Association to the federal Centers for Disease Control say safe-syringe sites help drug users beat addiction by connecting them with treatment and support services, while also protecting public health by providing clean needles — and safely disposing used ones — to reduce the transmission of HIV, hepatitis C, and other bloodborne diseases.
Critics complain they increase trash, crime, and disorder.
But Persichilli said the public’s “misunderstanding” of harm reduction “deepens the stigma that prevents vulnerable individuals from accessing critical, life-saving health services.”
Such services are more needed than ever, supporters say, given the state’s rising rates of drug overdose deaths.
State data shows 2,739 people have died from overdoses so far this year, with Essex County leading the state in drug deaths. If that pace continues through the end of the year, 2021 will be the deadliest year ever in New Jersey for drug overdoses.
At the same time, injection drug use continues to be one of the main spreaders of HIV in New Jersey, according to the Health Department. More than 38,000 people in New Jersey live with HIV or AIDS, and they are disproportionately people of color, according to state data. In 2018, Gov. Phil Murphy pledged to end the HIV epidemic in New Jersey by 2025.
New Jersey was the last in the nation to provide safe-needle sites when the state first approved them in 2006. Now, besides the Atlantic City site that is in limbo, there are six harm reduction centers statewide — in Asbury Park, Camden, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, and Trenton.
That’s not enough, one advocate said. Kentucky, for example, has 20 times more syringe access programs per capita than New Jersey does, said Caitlin O’Neill, director of harm reduction services at the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition.
“Fewer than 1.2% of municipalities in New Jersey have access to syringe services,” O’Neill said. “It can be really hard to get to these services if you don’t have transportation, and even if you do, you have to get there at the date and time they’re open. So this bill would really expand access to people and take the burden off these seven cities to be the sole providers.”
O’Neill also is rooting for Huttle’s bill that would decriminalize the possession and distribution of needles, saying it would improve public health by reducing syringe-sharing and syringe litter.
Huttle hopes her colleagues in the Legislature will agree.
“Years ago, people with substance use disorder lived in the shadows. Now it’s understood that everyone knows someone who’s addicted, often starting with painkillers,” Huttle said. “As more and more people are affected, I think it’s becoming less stigmatized. And it’s becoming clear that we really need these life-saving public health services in our communities.”
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