In 2006, when the Legislature approved a pilot program allowing free needle exchanges in up to six cities, New Jersey was the last state in the nation to allow drug addicts access to clean needles - despite overwhelming evidence that such programs curbed the spread of AIDS without increasing drug use or crime.
In 2011, when the Legislature approved a measure allowing pharmacies to sell hypodermic needles over the counter, New Jersey was one of only two states that still banned such sales.
In other words, New Jersey has historically been slow to act on these measures, even though the sharing of contaminated needles among drug addicts has long been the primary source of new AIDS cases in the state.
None of the fears about these measures has been borne out. They have not increased drug addiction. They have not caused any increase in crime. They have not led to an increase in the number of improperly disposed of needles.
Now, there is a bill in the Legislature to make the needle-exchange program permanent and to allow any city in the state to operate such a program. The bill also appropriates $95,000 to fund the programs - the 2006 legislation forbid the use of state funds for the exchanges.
Under that initial legislation, five cities established needle exchanges - Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark and Paterson. The law required that the programs also provide access to drug treatment. And according to Roseanne Scotti, director of the N.J. Drug Policy Alliance, which lobbies for changes in drug laws, 10,000 addicts have enrolled in the needle exchanges, and 25 percent of them were successfully enrolled in drug treatment programs, including more than a dozen pregnant women.
"Every time someone visits a syringe access program, it is one less chance they will get HIV and hepatitis C and one more chance they will get access to drug treatment and other needed services," Scotti said.
Gov. Chris Christie has shown a sensible sensitivity toward the disease of addiction, pushing for an expansion of the state's Drug Courts and mandatory drug-treatment, rather than prison, for nonviolent offenders with drug problems.
The full legalization of needle exchanges statewide is a logical extension of that approach.
It is now clear that access to clean needles doesn't make people more likely to use drugs. It just makes drug users less likely to get infected with the AIDS virus and other blood-borne diseases. And it makes them less likely to spread those diseases to their sexual partners - and their children.
Drug users aren't a special interest that has the ear of state lawmakers. But this bill is clearly in the public interest. The Legislature should approve it.