An activist rallies in support of the Oasis safe syringe site in Atlantic City on Oct. 6, 2021. (Photo by Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
New Jersey lawmakers passed legislation Monday intended to expand access to safe-syringe sites for people struggling with drug addiction.
Gov. Phil Murphy now has until Jan. 18 to sign the bill, which would allow nonprofits, health care providers, and other entitities 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 legislation was inspired by an effort by Atlantic City officials to close one there, which would leave the state with only six statewide. The bill passed in the Senate 21-16 and in the Assembly 47-27, largely along party lines.
Supporters called the legislation “a game-changer.”
“Harm reduction is the best tool we have to end the overdose crisis, and this legislation will make sure residents in every corner of New Jersey have access to this lifesaving care,” said Jenna Mellor, executive director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition.
Last year, 2,684 people died of drug overdoses in New Jersey through Oct. 31, state data shows.
“We cannot continue business as usual,” Mellor said.
Supporters said harm reduction centers are critical to protecting public health, because safe syringes are key to reducing the transmission of HIV, hepatitis C, and other bloodborne diseases.
“Today’s vote secures health services for some of the state of New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents,” said Carol Harney, CEO of South Jersey AIDS Alliance, which operates the Oasis Drop-In Center in Atlantic City. “Harm reduction programs have a proven history of reducing the incident rate of HIV/AIDS and other bloodborne pathogens and providing a bridge to drug treatment and nonjudgmental care. I commend our legislators for trusting science rather than stigma.”
Lawmakers also passed a bill that would decriminalize the possession of syringes and allow for expungement of previous convictions.
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