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New Jersey 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.
"We recognize 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 reasons."
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."
Intravenous-drug 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 politics." (AP)