The repeating mantra throughout the pandemic has been “trust science.” Atlantic City didn’t get the message — at least when it comes to lifesaving harm reduction policy.
Earlier this month, Atlantic City Council President George Tibbitt introduced an ordinance to shut down the city’s only syringe services program. Operated by the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, the Oasis drop-in center is one of only seven harm reduction centers in the state where people can get sterile syringes, drop used ones, be tested for HIV and hepatitis C, and access counseling, treatment, and social services.
The need for the center is tremendous.
Overdoses in Atlantic County increased from 171 to 216 between 2019 and 2020. The county also has one of the highest numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS per 100,000 residents in New Jersey — 1,390 residents were HIV positive in 2018. A plurality of cases over the years, 37%, were attributed to injection drug use.
Lack of access to unused syringes, not the drugs that are injected, puts people who inject drugs at higher risk of HIV or hepatitis C infection. There are signs that access to clean syringes improved in Atlantic County in recent years: In 2018, only 23% of cases were related to injection drug use.
The major issue is the location of the drop-in center: in the tourism district. For years there have been futile discussions between the AIDS Alliance and the city about finding a new location, with both sides citing lack of cooperation.
The reason that Tibbitt and his Council colleagues gave for the ordinance, which could be voted on over the summer, is syringe litter and the program’s impact on quality of life.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports syringe service programs as an HIV and overdose prevention measure — and cites studies that indicate no increase in crime around programs. Joe Biden’s White House included an unprecedented $30 million in the American Rescue Plan toward syringe services and harm reduction programs.
And yet, around the country, instead of expanding syringe service programs, lawmakers, mostly Republicans, are fighting against them. In West Virginia in April, the Republican governor signed a bill to restrict syringe programs. Indiana’s Scott County, which experienced an infamous HIV outbreak in 2015 that was resolved by opening a syringe exchange, voted to shut down the program.
In Pennsylvania, where a couple of syringe services programs are authorized under local control, both state senators and state representatives announced their intent to introduce a bill to officially allow syringe services programs. No bill has been introduced yet.
Votes against syringe exchanges are anti-science votes. If Atlantic City has a problem with the location of the syringe service program, the city should work harder to find a new, permanent, and easily accessible place. Gov. Phil Murphy, whose administration has significant power over the city because of the state’s 2016 takeover, has come out in support of the syringe program. Matching the rhetoric with action is urgent.
Just like coronavirus vaccines prevents COVID-19, syringe access prevents HIV. It’s past time for Atlantic City, and lawmakers all over the country, to trust science even when it comes to drug policy.