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Sell some syringes over the counter

Now that New Jersey's safe-syringe bill has been passed by the Legslature, Gov. Christie should sign it to help stem the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases. New Jersey ranks fifth nationally in AIDS cases, and injection-drug users account for half of all cases.

The legislation represents sound public-health policy that is long overdue. It would allow the sale of up to 10 syringes in pharmacies without a prescription. Easier access would appeal to persons unlikely to visit a clinic.

As a U.S. attorney, Christie opposed needle-exchange programs that allowed drug users to turn in dirty needles for clean ones. But a spokesman Tuesday would only say that "the bill will get careful review and consideration."

This bill, which passed with bipartisan support, should become law. New Jersey and Delaware have the dubious distinction of being the only two states in the country that still ban over-the-counter purchases of syringes.

A clean syringe costs only pennies but allows those at risk to protect themselves and others from potentially deadly diseases.

If signed by Christie, the legislation would also make it easier for insulin-dependent diabetics and other people who use injectable medications to obtain syringes. And implementing the legislation could save the state millions in preventive medical costs. It costs more than $618,000 to provide one person lifetime HIV care.

The state was the last in the nation to approve needle-exchange programs. State health officials say those programs, now operating in five cities including Camden, have helped reduce the transmission of communicable diseases. Since the programs began in 2007, clean needles have been distributed to more than 9,500 people at risk for HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.

And contrary to concerns among opponents, the needle-exchange programs have not encouraged drug use or promoted crime. In fact, more than 2,000 participants have sought drug treatment through the programs, which is evidence that they should be fully funded and expanded to other cities.

Advocates have also been pushing the over-the-counter syringe bill for several years. With public health at stake, New Jersey cannot afford to wait any longer.