Camden may revive controversial needle-exchange program

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)

A controversial needle-exchange program booted from south Camden two years ago may be returning to the city.

Camden’s city council this week approved the return of the needle exchange at a new location,  the Cherry Hill Courier-Post reported.

Activists hailed the revival of the city’s only needle exchange — a harm reduction strategy that health experts say can prevent diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis and connect drug users with other city services — as a belated victory.

“This harm reduction thing, it makes sense policywise, but it’s also a good deal for the taxpayer,” said Jay Lassiter, a Cherry Hill-based writer and activist. “To have gone this long without it just feels like an irredeemable waste.”

Although Camden City Council approved the return of the needle exchange, Mayor Frank Moran said he wants the program to find a permanent home elsewhere.

“I’ve shared with [Camden County officials] that I do not want the needle exchange in the city, but I understand the short-term needs, and I understand the health concerns,” Moran told the Courier-Post. (Moran could not be reached for comment by WHYY.)

Camden became one of the first cities in New Jersey to have a needle exchange when a facility opened there in 2008.

By 2016, the Camden Area Health Education Center’s needle exchange was giving away clean syringes to 250-350 drug users per week out of a van it parked in south Camden.

But waterfront development in the area caused city officials to shut down the needle exchange at that location. It had been without a home for two years.

It will now be located in a Mount Ephraim Avenue parking lot on the city’s border with Collingswood.

Debate raged in New Jersey for years before state officials even opened the door to needle exchanges as a way to reduce disease and promote safer behavior among drug users.

While needle exchanges have become more common since then, many still regard other harm reduction strategies as irresponsible or illegal.

A proposal for a supervised injection facility in Philadelphia, where drug users could take narcotics under the supervision of medical professionals, has some critics claiming it would encourage drug use and exacerbate the opioid crisis.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told WHYY in August that the federal government would crack down on any safe injection site established in Philadelphia.

“I’m not aware of any valid basis for the argument that you can engage in criminal activity as long as you do it in the presence of someone with a medical license,” he said.

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