The yearlong legal battle launched after Atlantic City voted to shut down the state's largest syringe access program. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
A yearlong legal battle over Atlantic City’s needle exchange program in the heart of the city’s tourism district could be near an end, though both sides remain at odds about a new location for syringe exchange services.
The city claims in new legal filings that its goal to shutter the Oasis Drop-In Center has been “rendered moot” by a law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in January that took the power to open and close needle exchanges out of local government’s hands and gave it to the state. It wants the judge overseeing the case to throw out the lawsuit filed against the city by harm reduction advocates.
But attorneys fighting the closure on behalf of the advocates say they fear the city will continue to interfere with the program’s operation, despite the law Murphy signed. They want the judge to permanently restrain the city from acting until the state does so.
The filings were first reported by Politico New Jersey.
The South Jersey AIDS Alliance sued Atlantic City last year to block a July 2021 city ordinance aimed at shutting down Oasis, the state’s largest, oldest, and busiest needle exchange program.
Council members who voted to dissolve the program cited its location near the city’s tourism district — blocks away from Steel Pier — and said the city has been unduly burdened by providing addiction treatment and harm reduction to residents. They said the program, which provides clean needles to intravenous drug users, attracted drug users to Atlantic City.
The South Jersey Against AIDS Alliance, which runs Oasis, argued the site reduces HIV infections, connects people with drug treatment, and ensures the disposal of used syringes. The site was one of just seven across the state, and the only location south of Camden. Activists warned its closure could lead to unnecessary deaths.
In a letter filed by attorneys representing Atlantic City last week, the city asks for the case to be dismissed, saying the ordinance closing the needle exchange is now “legislatively rendered invalid.”
At the time the council acted, municipalities had the power to start and shutter needle exchange programs. But by January, Murphy had signed a bill giving the state Department of Health the sole power to open and close exchange services throughout the state.
Last year, Superior Court Judge Michael Blee issued an order halting the city’s closure of the needle exchange program while the lawsuit proceeded. In June he ordered the city and the alliance to attempt to come to a resolution.
Throughout August, the two sides discussed potential new locations for the needle exchange program, but couldn’t come to a consensus.
Atlantic City’s only proposal inside the city limits was a Stockton University administration building, but the city never reached out to the university for its approval, according to the alliance’s attorneys. The city rejected the alliance’s nine suggested sites, the documents say.
Attorneys for the alliance say the city “does not appear to be acting in good faith” and still does “not want needle exchange “in its backyard.” They also claim the city scouted Stockton as a potential location because a woman employed as a professor spoke in favor of the needle exchange during a public hearing on Oasis.
The South Jersey AIDS Alliance declined to comment. A spokesperson for Atlantic City did not respond to requests for comment.
State data shows that nearly 1,700 people have died of an opioid overdose between Jan. 1 and July 31 this year.
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