Bills to expand harm reduction programs and decriminalize syringes advance

By: - November 16, 2021 7:02 am

Eliminating syringe litter is one of the goals of two bills before the New Jersey Legislature that would decriminalize syringes and expand access to harm reduction programs. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Two bills that would expand New Jerseyans’ access to safe-needle sites and decriminalize syringes advanced Monday in the Legislature, despite opposition from Republicans.

The first bill would allow entities like nonprofits and health care providers to open harm reduction centers, with approval from the state health commissioner — and allow only the commissioner to close them. Current law permits only municipalities to open such centers. The state has seven, and public officials in Atlantic City aim to close one there.

The second bill would repeal a 1987 law that makes it a crime to have or distribute a syringe without a medical prescription.

Supporters said both bills are critical to protecting public health, because safe syringes are key to reducing the transmission of HIV, hepatitis C, and other bloodborne diseases. Decriminalizing syringes further protects the public by reducing syringe-sharing and syringe litter, while harm reduction centers help drug users beat addiction by connecting them with treatment and support services, advocates say.

It is time we closed the door on trying to arrest our way out of addiction.

– Jennie Chenkin, co-founder of New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition

Marleina Ubel, policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, testified before the Assembly’s Health Committee in support of adding harm reduction centers, citing the ongoing overdose crisis. Almost 2,800 people have died from overdoses so far this year in New Jersey, state data shows. If that pace continues through the end of the year, 2021 will be the state’s deadliest year ever for drug overdoses.

“Harm reduction programs reduce the risk of overdose as those who have access to these programs are five times more likely to start drug treatment programs and three times more likely to stop chaotic substance use,” Ubel said. “Individuals with access to harm reduction programs are half as likely to acquire HIV or hepatitis C as those who do not have access to harm reduction programs, increasing the overall health of our communities.”

Assembly members Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon), Brian Rumpf (R-Ocean), Nancy Munoz (R- Union), and DeAnne DeFuccio (R-Bergen) voted against it. Municipalities should “control their own destiny and not us,” Peterson said.

“I’m not so sure this is going to have the results that everyone keeps talking about in such glowing terms,” Peterson added. “I’ve never heard once somebody say that getting clean needles is what turned them around. It’s always been that they hit rock bottom and lost everything, and that’s what turns them around.”

In the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, Jennie Chenkin, co-founder of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, testified in support of decriminalizing syringes.

“It is time we closed the door on trying to arrest our way out of addiction,” Chenkin said.

Assemblymen Christopher DePhillips (R-Bergen) and Robert Auth (R-Bergen) voted against that bill. DePhillips said any such measure should include provisions to help drug users get treatment.

“I don’t think we’re actually helping anybody by saying, ‘Hey, no problem, just go about your business, we’re going to ignore it,’” DePhillips said.

Legislators have until early January to vote the bills into law before a new legislative session begins.

Several bills that would enhance protections for domestic violence survivors also advanced in the Legislature on Monday, including measures that would expand mandatory training for prosecutors, law enforcement officers, judges, and judicial staff and require that survivors be notified when firearms are returned to their alleged abuser.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.