Operators of Atlantic City’s only needle exchange are suing the city to allow them to keep distributing clean syringes -- just weeks before a city council ordinance is set to end the program.
The lawsuit, filed in New Jersey Superior Court Wednesday morning, says that shuttering the syringe exchange at Oasis, a health center for people with addiction in downtown Atlantic City, will precipitate a public health crisis after a year in which overdoses skyrocketed around the country.
Atlantic City has some of the highest HIV case counts in the state, and, as of 2018, nearly half of those cases were the result of injection drug use. Though Oasis does provide other health services, the syringe exchange is what gets most clients through the door, officials at the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, which runs Oasis, wrote in the lawsuit.
“The level of engagement for Oasis’s other services drops dramatically on days when we do not distribute syringes. On average, during syringe access operating hours, Oasis experiences more than 50 client visits per day; when our [syringe access program] is closed, we typically see fewer than 10 clients per day,” wrote Carol Harney, SJAA’s CEO.
The exchange, she said, is a crucial “bridge” for people in addiction to access health care they might not otherwise get.
At the crux of lawmakers’ objections to the site was the idea that Atlantic City needs to provide social services such as syringe exchanges that whiter, wealthier towns in Atlantic County wouldn’t tolerate. They claimed that the exchange was drawing people with addiction to Atlantic City and contributing to discarded needles around town.
The suit alleges that, “whether deliberately or otherwise,” city officials did not inform themselves about the benefits of the exchange, and have “overstated or exaggerated difficulties” associated with the exchange, adding that council members had been advised by health care professionals about the negative public health consequences of closing the exchange, and disregarded them.
The suit noted that city council president George Tibbitt, who vocally opposed the exchange, said just before the vote to close the exchange that he didn’t remember an earlier meeting with the city’s health director, during which the director told council members that the city should keep the exchange open.
“The public record confirms that City Council was indifferent to the data submitted by the Alliance and the recommendations of City officials,” the lawsuit reads. “Moreover, when the recommendation against closure was brought to the Council President’s attention, he proceeded hastily, not permitting Council members an opportunity to assess the relevant information; rather, the ordinance was adopted without any further legislative inquiry.”
Tibbitt was not immediately available for comment. A spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy, who has expressed support for the exchange, said the governor could not comment on pending legislation.
SJAA officials said that most of the agency’s clients live in Atlantic City and walk to the exchange, and that 98% of the needles the exchange distributes are returned properly for disposal, the highest rate in the state. Since 2007, when the exchange opened, the lawsuit states, new HIV cases in Atlantic City have dropped by 91% among people who report injection drug use as a potential source of their infection.
The ordinance to close the site, the lawsuit says, “recklessly harms” clients “by depriving them of essential health services and jeopardizes their ‘safety and happiness’ as guaranteed by the New Jersey Constitution.”
SJAA is asking the court for an injunction to stop the enforcement of the ordinance, which would close the exchange by Oct. 12.
In a press release, Harney said it’s her responsibility to do “everything we can to protect the people who entrust their health and well being to South Jersey AIDS Alliance. We’re hopeful that justice will prevail.”