N.J. Needle Exchange Slow to Reach Addicts

By Matthew Van Atta

Originally published on Advocate.com February 27 2008 12:00 AM ET

New Jersey has
become the last state where intravenous drug users can
legally get clean needles, but two of the state's three
needle exchanges are struggling to get clients. A lack
of funding, winter weather, remote locations, and a
mistrust by drug users are all making it tough for the
exchanges to reach clients.

One exchange,
located in Camden, distributes needles out of the back of a
blue van that sets up Tuesday afternoons near an overgrown
vacant lot in an industrial waterfront section of the
city, where bottles of all types, trash, condoms, and
clothing are strewn.

Officials say
they would rather have addicts congregating there than in
the more visible downtown area. Most of the pedestrians are
prostitutes, including some who are among about 15
clients at the needle exchange.

A health
education center's motor home -- where health workers draw
blood for hepatitis tests, give instant HIV tests, and
hand out snacks, blankets, and condoms -- is parked
next to the van. The state government put $10 million
toward drug treatment as part of the law that allowed
needle exchanges but didn't fund the needle-exchange
programs.

''All the
programs in New Jersey are operating on a shoestring,'' said
Roseanne Scotti, director of Drug Policy Alliance New
Jersey. But she said the exchanges are nonetheless
promising, despite their modest starts. The state
legislature approved the pilot needle-exchange program
in 2006 over heavy opposition and only after years of
wrangling.

New Jersey is
believed to have tens of thousands of IV drug users, but
only about 200 are enrolled so far in the three existing
exchanges. Advocates of the exchanges hope addicts who
have easier access to needles won't be as likely to
share them and that the spread of HIV and other
blood-borne diseases will be slowed.

According to a
2005 report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, at
least 43% of New Jersey's 48,000 reported HIV and AIDS cases
were transmitted through needles; only Connecticut had
a higher rate.

The Camden
exchange is run by the Camden Area Health Education Center.
Kim McCargo, who oversees the service, says it would take
$500,000 a year to run a program as expansive as she
would like, with needles given out three days a week
at locations around the city.

The health
education center has managed to scrounge together about
$85,000 in grants, enough for a once-a-week exchange run by
McCargo and volunteers.

Last week, one of
the clients was a 48-year-old man named Mickey. The
Camden resident said the exchange is a lot better than
making the trip to Philadelphia to get needles, or
getting them on the street illegally.

''This is a good
program. The only complaint I have is they should move
it a little closer to town,'' said Mickey, a Camden resident
who spoke on condition that his last name not be used
because heroin possession is illegal. ''I ain't a
young boy.''

McCargo says the
weather is one reason. Though it's been a mild winter in
southern New Jersey, Tuesday afternoons have been marked by
flurries, sleet, and frozen rain. That's a major
factor because so many of the addicts don't drive.
Over a few hours on a recent Tuesday, only one client
arrived by car; the rest walked.

The first legal
exchange program in the state, the Oasis Drop-in Center
at Atlantic City, has had more success reaching intravenous
drug users. About 175 people have enrolled since
November.

The needle
exchange at the Well of Hope Drop-in Center in Paterson has
registered 20 users in its first few weeks. Director Jerome
King says people there have been scared off because
they saw a police car parked by coincidence nearby.

''People are
still getting over the stigmas and some of the fears, not
knowing if it's going to be a police trap,'' King said.
''Once people feel safe, it will pick up.'' (AP)