municipalities cannot establish needle-exchange programs
because they would violate state drug laws, an appeals panel
ruled Tuesday, delivering another setback to programs
planned in Atlantic City and Camden. Atlantic City's
plan to pass out clean needles in hopes of stemming
the use of dirty ones by intravenous-drug
users—however well-intentioned—does not
exempt city employees from a nearly 20-year-old set of
drug laws, the court said in a unanimous ruling written by
Judge Stephen Skillman.
that many people believe that needle-exchange programs
such as the one adopted by Atlantic City serve a vital
public interest in reducing the transmission of the
[AIDS] virus and other blood-borne diseases without
increasing illegal drug use," Skillman wrote for the
three-judge appellate division panel. "We also recognize
that there are scientific studies supporting this
viewpoint. However, Atlantic City and its employees
are not exempt from the Code (of Criminal Justice)
provisions prohibiting the possession, use, and distribution
of drugs and drug paraphernalia simply because they
adopted a needle-exchange program for beneficent
The ruling is the
second recent setback for needle-exchange advocates and
means New Jersey will remain one of only two states without
a method to legally provide clean syringes to drug
users. New Jersey and Delaware are the only two states
that do not have needle-exchange programs and do not
permit nonprescription sales of syringes.
On June 17 the
appellate division stayed an executive order issued in
October by former governor James E. McGreevey that would
have allowed up to three cities to establish
experimental needle-exchange programs. That case
centers on whether McGreevey had the authority to permit the
programs. Efforts to legalize needle exchanges in New Jersey
have failed in the legislature.
Critics of the
programs welcomed Tuesday's ruling; supporters said they
were not surprised by it.
"The good guys
won one," said Assemblyman Joe Pennacchio, a
conservative Republican and opponent of needle exchanges.
"It was a victory for common sense. Our efforts should
be maintained at stopping drug abuse, not enabling
drug abusers by giving them needles."
users account for more than half of New Jersey's 62,000
HIV cases. According to Atlantic City officials, the problem
is even more acute in the casino capital, where one in
32 African-Americans is HIV-positive.
"All I can say
is, it's a classic case of public health versus law
enforcement," said Atlantic City health officer Ronald Cash,
a vocal advocate of needle exchanges. "I think health
is equally as important as law. It's a crisis in
Atlantic City. We have to do something creative to
handle it. Public health should be bigger than