Bill expanding needle exchanges in N.J. moves to full Legislature

The proposal removes a requirement that harm reduction centers get permission from municipal governments to operate.

Needles are bundled in tens for Philadelphia's Prevention Point's exchange program. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Needles are bundled in tens for Philadelphia's Prevention Point's exchange program. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The full New Jersey Legislature is expected to vote Monday on a bill that will allow harm reduction centers – or needle exchanges – to open in more areas of the state.

The bill, introduced in October 2020, removes the requirement that centers can operate if a municipality passes an ordinance giving them permission to do so.

State Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) said the bill will open up more programs in more areas, adding when the original law allowing the exchanges was written in 2006, it was limited to a handful of cities.

“These programs not only prevent the spread of blood borne pathogens, it also brings people into treatment and recovery. And that’s been demonstrated time and again,” he said.

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Vitale, one of the lead sponsors of the bill, adds that the legislation is also, in part, a response to the Atlantic City Council passing an ordinance last July that revoked the permission for the South Jersey AIDS Alliance to operate a needle exchange at the Oasis Drop-in Center it operates. The action came despite advocates and supporters of the program urging the council to leave it open.

Weeks before the ordinance was to take effect, the alliance sued the city to stay open, according to the Press of Atlantic City. Superior Court Judge Michael Blee issued an order in December stopping the city from enforcing its ordinance forcing Oasis to stop its exchange program as the lawsuit continues.

“It was never contemplated by the Legislature that a community could say you cannot come,” Vitale said.

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Supporters of harm reduction centers have cited studies that the programs work, crediting the exchanges for a dramatic drop in HIV infections. They are praising the bill moving from committees in both the Assembly and the Senate on Thursday.

“Harm reduction services work, but only if they’re able to open,” said Marleina Ubel, policy analyst and state policy fellow at New Jersey Policy Perspective, adding the current law makes it difficult to open centers in towns that want them. She is hopeful that the bill passes, calling the centers an example of a public health approach to the overdose crisis.

“This is a commonsense policy that will make sure we lose fewer of our friends and family members to preventable overdose deaths,” she added.

Gov. Phil Murphy does not normally comment on pending legislation. However, he has expressed support for harm reduction centers in the past.

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