Councilman Jesse Kurtz is trying to get Atlantic City’s successful syringe-exchange program for drug users moved out of its Tourism District. We hope he succeeds.
There’s no question ensuring that addicts have access to clean syringes is helpful. It reduces sharing of needles from 40 percent of addicts to one in 10, the federal Centers for Disease Control said last year. That’s important to help prevent major outbreaks of hepatitis and HIV as a result of increased use nationwide of heroin and other opioids, the CDC warned.
There is evidence it has helped in Atlantic City. HIV cases among residents declined from 39 in 2007, the year the needle exchange program began, to eight in 2016, according to the state.
It’s a good program but in the wrong location.
As the late Sen. Jim Whelan said in these pages in 2014, Atlantic City should prioritize three things to enhance itself “as a true destination resort”: more aggressively demolish abandoned buildings, create a larger Stockton University presence and move social agencies out of the Tourism District.
Progress has been made on all three, and moving the needle exchange should be part of it. Currently it’s between Atlantic and Pacific avenues, near Resorts Casino and the Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City.
Finding another location won’t be easy. Camden’s needle exchange program shut for a few months last year when it needed to find a new location.
But surely there is a place outside the Tourism District where new syringes could be provided a couple of times a week. Camden’s program does so from a van, so no permanent presence is needed.
Atlantic City’s burden is also partly due to the repeated failure of New Jersey to extend its needle exchange program throughout the state. This “pilot program” was authorized 12 years ago and serves six cities, also including Asbury Park, Jersey City, Newark and Paterson. Legislation to make it permanent and fund it failed in 2012, and in 2016 Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the modest $95,000 appropriation for it.
News flash for state officials: The drug crisis isn’t confined to the state’s big urban areas. Every county should have a location where addicts can get clean syringes for free.
New Jersey has been the chief laggard among states on syringe availability. It was the last state to allow any needle exchange program. It was the next to last state to allow pharmacies to sell syringes over the counter in small quantities.
The state should make amends by expanding and funding the program statewide, and in doing so make it easier for Atlantic City to no longer have it be part of its tourism core.