A pair of bills that would expand access to safe-syringe programs for opioid users and decriminalize hypodermic needle possession has advanced in the New Jersey State Legislature.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), a lead sponsor of the measures, said, “Research has shown time and again that harm reduction measures work.”
“People struggling with addiction will often find a way to obtain and use drugs regardless of the potential risks. Our state loses thousands of residents each year to overdoses alone. If we want to help our fellow community members avoid these tragic outcomes, we must offer the resources and safer alternatives they need,” Vainieri Huttle said.
Clean Needle Programs
A-4847, which was cleared Nov. 15 by the Assembly Health Committee, would give the state Department of Health (DOH) more control over where to locate syringe access programs.
Currently, local authorization is required before programs can be established, which, the bill’s supporters say is the biggest barrier to expanding harm reduction services in the Garden State.
Under the proposal, healthcare providers and non-profits would be able to seek state permission to open harm reduction programs in any municipality. If approved, the DOH would work with local providers, social service agencies and municipal officials to build support for the initiative. Additionally, the bill would only permit the state health commissioner to shut down an existing program.
The measure—which appropriates $5 million for harm reduction centers and $10 million for treatment programs—was approved by the state Senate Health Committee earlier this year and now faces a review by the Budget Committee.
Current Law Hinders Expansion
Under a law enacted in 2006, only municipalities can open such facilities, which has resulted in a limited number of programs in urban areas, like Jersey City, Newark, Paterson and Trenton.
Currently, the state has seven harm reduction centers, though the one in Atlantic City might be closed down, depending on the outcome of a court fight in which treatment advocates are battling city officials.
The programs offer intravenous drug users clean needles, cancer screenings, wound care and overdose reversal kits. They also work to help drug users beat addiction by connecting them with treatment and support services.
Access to clean needles has been associated with a 50% decline in HIV and hepatitis C, a decrease in overdose deaths and an increase in treatment acceptance, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Assemblyman Anthony Verrelli (D-15) said, “Both compassion and logic are at the heart of harm reduction programs. With countless New Jerseyans struggling with addiction every day throughout our state, we cannot turn a blind eye to their needs. Making it easier for qualified entities to start – and continue – providing clean needles, overdose antidotes, and resources that can connect individuals with other support services is how we save lives.”
Decriminalizing Needle Possession
A-5458—which was approved Nov. 15 by the Assembly Judiciary Committee—seeks to repeal a 1987 law that makes it a crime to have or distribute a syringe without a medical prescription.
Since 2012, the state has made over 55,000 arrests for illegal possession of syringes, which, bill supporters say contradicts the public health best practice of ensuring widely available syringe access to prevent overdose deaths, HIV and Hepatitis C. The measure would also expunge past criminal cases related to needle possession.
A companion bill sponsored by State Sens. Joseph Vitale (D-19), Nia Gill (D-34) and Joseph Lagana (D-38) was approved by the full Senate in June.
NJ’s Laws Too ‘Restrictive’
According to the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, the state’s “restrictive syringe access laws are an undue and discriminatory barrier” and the need to expand the services is urgent.
Caitlin O’Neill, the organization’s director of harm reduction services, said, “Decriminalization of syringes and expanded access would mean that it’s safe to ask a doctor about safer injecting practice to avoid life threatening skin infections and endocarditis, safe to even say out loud that you need help to stop injecting, safe to ask for care, safe to have publicly accessible syringe disposal bins in all municipalities, and safe for someone to tell a law enforcement officer or EMS provider that they have a syringe on them, drastically lowering the risk of needle stick injury among first responders.”
Pandemic Increased Need
Supporters of harm reduction programs have stressed that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the need for these services, as more people have turned to drugs and alcohol to cope over the past two years.
Since the start of the coronavirus crisis in March 2020, there has been a 13% uptick in new or increased substance use, according to federal data cited by the bills.
Overdose deaths were on rise for over a decade in New Jersey and peaked in 2018, when 3,118 residents lost their lives. After declining slightly in 2019, drug-related fatalities ticked up to 3,046 last year. As of now, the state is on track to surpass the 2020 total, based on numbers from the first half of 2021, and it would be New Jersey’s deadliest year ever for overdoses.
Combating Opioid Crisis
The bills—which Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration recently announced its support for—are part of a larger package championed by Vainieri Huttle and Vitale.
In June, a measure that expanded access to naloxone — the antidote that reverses an opioid overdose — was signed into law.