Atlantic City’s needle exchange is one step closer to going mobile.
After passionate comments from both sides, City Council voted unanimously to approve an ordinance that would change the 2004 and 2007 ordinances that established sterile syringe access programs to mobile units.
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The move is part of a focus on cleaning up the city after complaints about discarded needles showing up throughout the city.
But representatives from the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, which runs the program, say the move will cost lives.
“Fears of an opioid-driven HIV outbreak are real,” social worker Rosalind Preston told the council.
“We cannot be so naive as to the nature of addiction to think that people in the middle of addiction are just going to adjust to a new system. We’re going to lose lives.”
— Mike Nees, case manager at South Jersey AIDS Alliance
“We cannot be so naive as to the nature of addiction to think that people in the middle of addiction are just going to adjust to a new system,” said Mike Nees, a case manager. “We’re going to lose lives. This is our city. This are people we can distinguish from transients we don’t want because it’s us.”
There are 650 residents who are HIV positive, said Carol Harney, chief executive officer of the alliance. Atlantic City is in the Top 10 in the state.
She said the alliance is willing to move to a location outside of the Tourism District, which didn’t exist when the program began.
Loud applause followed each of the speakers. But council was not deterred.
The vote was 8-0, with Councilman Aaron Randolph absent.
“No longer should Atlantic City have to take care of all the negative, all of the burden,” Councilman Kaleem Shabazz said.
“Everybody dumps their problems here in Atlantic City,” City Councilman George Tibbitt said. “Everybody has to help and do their fair share.”
In order to get clean needles through the exchange, a participant has to turn in the old needles.
But Tibbitt and others have said needles are often found dumped in the city’s streets and elsewhere.
Jonathan Eads took to Facebook on Tuesday, after he said he walked into the bathroom of the McDonald’s at the Walk and found a needle on the floor and another on the baby changing station.
“Thank God my wife had off and was with me, so she took my son into the woman’s bathroom,” he told BreakingAC.
He said he sees needles almost daily when he rides his bike to work.
“They are all over Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Avenue,” Eads said.
City Council President Marty Small said when the needle exchange program was first approved in 2004, it was his first year on council.
At the time it was “a bold move,” he said. “But things and times change.”
Nees said those who participate in the program are “trying to do the right thing… even in the throes of addiction” by trying to avoid the spread of disease.
He also said the insinuation that the program has added to the city’s drug problems is laughable.
“Consider all the elements in play in Atlantic City,” he said. “All the enterprises on and off the books, and we are supposed to believe that our clean syringe exchange program is a deciding factor in somebody coming here. We’re supposed to believe you can look out there and find one of these supposed faceless vagrants on the street who says, ‘Oh yeah, I was going to go to some other town but Atlantic City has the clean syringe exchange so that’s why I loiter around here. This is nonsense. This is ignorance to public health.”
In addition to limiting such programs to mobile access, the ordinance also only allows them in the same location two consecutive days and does not allow them within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet of a religious institution.
The ordinance will be up for final reading in two weeks. Small said that the CRDA has offered to pay for a mobile unit.