In Brief

Lawsuit challenges Atlantic City’s ban on safe-needle access

By: - September 29, 2021 12:21 pm

Protestors marching in Atlantic City on Aug. 11, 2021, in support of keeping the city’s needle exchange program open. (Courtesy of New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition)

The South Jersey AIDS Alliance has sued Atlantic City to block a new ordinance that bans syringe access effective Oct. 12.

Three anonymous residents who use the city’s Oasis Drop-In Center for syringe access are also named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in state Superior Court in Atlantic County. More than 1,200 people visited Oasis — New Jersey’s busiest needle-exchange site — to access new, sterile syringes in 2020, according to the alliance. The city’s council voted to shut down Oasis in July.

In the complaint, the alliance argues the ordinance is discriminatory against people who struggle with addiction and those with HIV or AIDS.

“Overwhelming evidence shows that syringe services programs reduce transmission of HIV and hepatitis and overdose, and increase engagement in treatment without the negative consequences often cited by opponents,” Sally Friedman, vice president of legal advocacy at Legal Action Center, said in a statement. “Prohibiting syringe services programs due to inaccurate myths and stereotypes about the people who need them denies people life-saving care.”

Atlantic City spokeswoman Rebekah Mena said the city solicitor’s office is reviewing the lawsuit, but noted “the city’s position on the needle exchange ordinance passed by Council remains the same.”

The lawsuit comes three months after experts warned city and state officials the ban could invite litigation. The needle-exchange program’s closure also contradicts the recommendation of city Health Director Dr. Wilson Washington to keep it open, according to an email the alliance obtained through a public records request.

The alliance argues safe needle sites reduce new HIV and hepatitis C infections by 50 percent, connect people with drug treatment, drive down addiction rates, and ensure the safe disposal of used syringes.

“Atlantic City is on the verge of closing a lifesaving health service supported by public health experts within the city and across the state after new locations for the program were proposed to the council and met with silence,” Jenna Mellor, executive director of New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, said in a statement. “It’s now up to the court to step in and prevent a damaging and discriminatory policy from taking effect.”

A March study by Pew found safe syringe access programs can improve public health during opioid overdose crises. More than 1,600 people died of opioid overdoses this year through June, according to state data. And almost half of reported HIV cases in Atlantic City were caused by injection drug use, the alliance said.

The Oasis center serves people struggling with addiction and living with or at risk of acquiring HIV. The center distributed more than 1,380 kits containing an overdose-reversing drug, saving at least 48 people, the alliance said.

After Atlantic City’s action, advocates in favor of needle-exchange programs urged Gov. Phil Murphy to take action, but Murphy said he lacks the authority to halt the Oasis closure. He later announced his support of a bill that would preserve and expand harm reduction centers statewide. 

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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.