In a victory for harm-reduction advocates in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday signed a bill into law that allows the Department of Health to open syringe-exchange programs around the state, instead of requiring municipalities to approve the programs themselves.

Syringe exchanges where people who use drugs intravenously can get clean needles — preventing the spread of blood-borne infections like HIV — have been legal in New Jersey since 2007. But previous legislation required municipal approval before a site could open. Just seven exchanges operate in the state today, in Asbury Park, Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, and Trenton.

The new bill allows the Department of Health to accept and approve applications from any entity, not just towns, that want to open a syringe exchange. “We are paving the way for long-overdue expansion of syringe access and other critical services to help people with substance use disorders stay healthy, stay alive, and thrive,” Murphy said in a statement.

Jenna Mellor, the executive director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, said that advocates have been pushing for expanded syringe access for years but that the issue hit a “tipping point” last summer, when the Atlantic City Council voted to close Oasis, the city’s syringe exchange — the oldest and the largest in the state.

Council members had balked at the exchange’s location in the city’s tourism district, contending that the city has shouldered an unfair burden and that other communities besides Atlantic City should be providing addiction services to residents. But the tight restrictions around syringe exchanges made that a near impossibility.

Council President George Tibbitt, who had been vocally opposed to the exchange operating in the city’s tourism district, said he was pleased by the new law. “It’s a great day for Atlantic City,” he said. “Now all municipalities will be subject to having needles given out in their community. All the work will not be put on just Atlantic City anymore. We’re looking forward to working with the state to do our fair share.”

After the council voted to shutter Oasis, officials at the exchange filed a lawsuit to stay open. That lawsuit is still proceeding: “The lawsuit doesn’t automatically end because of the new law. I’m not sure exactly how long it takes to take effect,” said Oasis executive director Carol Harney. In the meantime, she said a judge had issued a restraining order allowing the exchange to operate as long as the litigation is pending.

The new law is an encouraging development, she said, and the exchange staff is eager to see it implemented.

“I think the law probably wouldn’t have been passed if it wasn’t for the fact that the largest syringe access program in New Jersey was being closed,” she said.

Mellor said that giving the Department of Health authority over syringe exchanges “lets these successfully operating programs focus on what they do best — supporting people who use drugs, and not dealing with stigma and pushback from local politicians looking for a scapegoat.”

On Tuesday, Murphy also signed two other bills that are geared toward expanding harm-reduction practices. One decriminalizes the possession of syringes, and another will create “drug overdose fatality review teams” to better track overdoses in the state. In 2021, 3,081 New Jerseyans died of suspected drug overdoses, the governor’s office said in a statement.