N.J. Needle Exchange Program expands

Syringe access
Pphoto by Pixabay

Three bills passed in January that may save many lives in the Garden State

Currently the only needle exchange programs in New Jersey are in Asbury Park, Camden, Jersey City, Trenton, Paterson, Newark, and Atlantic City. A new law recently enacted will expand the program, with an added benefit to the LGBTQ community, too.

Governor Phil Murphy signed three bills into law January 18 which will expand harm reduction efforts and combat the state’s opioid epidemic. These efforts include the removal of long-standing barriers, decriminalization of needle possession, and providing protection services against overdose and HIV contraction as well as broaden needle exchange programs throughout the state.

Here’s what you should know.

The original law authorizing the establishment of syringe access programs was enacted 15 years ago and has enabled seven centers to offer comprehensive harm reduction services such as needle exchanges to over nine million people. In 2021, 3,081 New Jersey residents died from fatal drug overdoses.

New Jersey’s history of restrictive laws against syringe access has had damaging effects. The state has lagged behind others such as Kentucky, who has nearly 20 times more syringe access per capita, according to the NJ Harm Reduction Coalition’s website. That’s 150 syringe access programs to New Jersey’s seven.

The law, S3009, will change this by authorizing the Department of Health to provide needle exchange services and support services to drug users. Governor Murphy also signed bills S3493, which decriminalizes possession of syringes, and A798, which creates multidisciplinary local overdose fatality teams, into law.  

The laws will also combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. Carol Harney, CEO of South Jersey AIDS Alliance, applauds the new law as a bold act by the governor.

“This legislation secures health services for some of the state of New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents, from Atlantic County to Sussex County, who are all too often overlooked by policymakers,” Harney said. “By expanding syringe access and protecting health services for people living with a substance use disorder and who are living with or at-risk of HIV, New Jersey lawmakers are saving lives.”

In a 2020 report, New Jersey reported approximately 38,000 people living with HIV or AIDS living in the state. According to the report, “Minorities account for 77% of adult/adolescent cumulative (ever reported to the state) HIV/AIDS cases and 79% of all persons living with HIV/AIDS.”

The legislative package will broaden access to clean syringes for the LGBTQ community. 

“When we established the LGBTQ Health and Wellness Center, we did it on the premise that we had so many patients who had nowhere to go, where they weren’t getting culturally competent, comfortable health care,” said Shannon Preston, the HIV communications director at the Asbury Park Visiting Nurse Association of Central Jersey (VNACJ).   

Nearly one-third of transgender people are avoidant of healthcare due to uneducated healthcare providers and the often prohibitive expense of healthcare even with health insurance.

Michael Zito-Govert, nurse practitioner of the LGBTQ Health and Wellness Center at the VNACJ, sends some of his patients next door for clean needles at the Prevention Resource Network (PRN) Harm Reduction Center of the VNACJ. Some of Zito-Govert’s patients are transgender and gender nonconforming people in need of needles to undergo hormone replacement therapy.

“We’ve been working with Michael for quite some time,” Preston said. “We do have a number of people who do come over from Michael’s practice to get syringes from our site. I think that’s what sets the Asbury Park [community] apart from everybody else. It’s that we have this amazing community and everyone kind of knows everybody,” Preston said. “We’re all in this together.”

More harm reduction centers mean a more comprehensive array of services on top of community care. This package also includes a build on investments included in the Governor’s budget to bring services to residents in need of clean syringes, HIV and hepatitis transmission prevention, health screenings and recovery support.

In 2021 the PRN’s Harm Reduction Center had 356 unduplicated participants for 1,432 total visits. Out of those visits, 70,023 syringes were distributed, 32,253 were returned, with 350 secondary exchanges and 345 Narcan kits distributed. These numbers are up from 2020 where the VNA had 216 unduplicated participants for 961 total visits. Out of those visits, 58,150 syringes were distributed, 18,718 were returned, with 264 secondary exchanges and 110 Narcan kits distributed.  

These numbers are likely to increase under the new laws.

“This is a joyous moment for people who use drugs all across our state,” Caitlin O’Neill, Director of Harm Reductions Services at New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, said. “Many lives will be saved with the expansion of harm reduction centers and the decriminalization of syringes in New Jersey, and many peoples’ inherent value and humanity will be reinforced. This is a vital step towards New Jersey ending the overdose crisis, repairing the harms of the racist drug war, and finally building the systems of care that will keep all of us alive and safer — no matter where we lay our heads.”

Governor Murphy says that harm reduction is a cornerstone of his team’s strategy. He believes this legislation will help people to stay alive and thrive. “Over the last four years, my administration has prioritized a comprehensive, data-driven approach to ending New Jersey’s opioid epidemic,” Governor Murphy said.