ATLANTIC CITY — Gov. Phil Murphy expressed disappointment after City Council voted in favor of ending the resort's clean syringe exchange program during a meeting Wednesday night.
"I am deeply disappointed by the Atlantic City Council decision to close the city's syringe access program," Murphy said around 10 p.m. on Twitter. "This action will endanger some of the city's most at-risk residents and contradicts my Administration's comprehensive, data-driven strategy to end the opioid crisis.
"Now, more than ever, because of the increase in opioid-related deaths, is the time to push forward and continue in our broader efforts to expand harm reduction centers across the state."
The decision came after more than three hours of discussion by council, advocates for the program and residents in recovery.
"We will always do our fair share, but we are not carrying the burden of the entire county anymore," Council President George Tibbitt said. "We're not doing this alone, on the backs of our children and seniors any longer."
The program, which was the first needle exchange to open in New Jersey in 2007, has long been debated by city officials. Council cast the first vote for an ordinance to repeal the program June 16.
Despite vocal protests from advocacy groups and the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, the organization that runs the program, council doubled down Wednesday in a 7-2 vote.
Councilman Moisse "Mo" Delgado and Councilwoman LaToya Dunston opposed the ordinance, as they did during the meeting last month.
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Nearly 50 people, some harm reduction experts and others who are recovering from addiction, spoke in support of the exchange. Two people spoke in favor of repealing the program.
"Closing (the program) will not make the problems go away. The evidence shows it will only get worse," said Michael Enich, of New Brunswick.
Jenna Mellor, executive director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, said the decision was shameful.
"People will die as a result of this. And the council tried to say they support the program while at the same time they voted to close it," Mellor said. "You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. They heard over and over the voices of the people in the city, state and national experts to call on them to make the right decision, and they didn't listen."
Anthony Swan, the resort's business administrator, said Wilson Washington, the city's director of health and human services, presented a recommendation to Tibbitt earlier this month.
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"The recommendation from Dr. Washington is that the city should keep the needle exchange and that there should be some sort of solution," Swan said.
Due to the state takeover in 2016, all decisions made by council must be approved by the state.
Gov. Phil Murphy has been a vocal supporter of the program.
“We remain committed to ensuring that Atlantic City and area residents continue to have access to these evidence-based and life-saving services,” Alyana Alfaro, Murphy's spokesperson, said in an email last week.
If the state approves council's decision, the syringe exchange program will have 30 days to shut down.
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The exchange in Atlantic City is just one of seven in the state, along with programs in Asbury Park, Camden, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson and Trenton.
Talks of moving the Oasis Drop-In Center off Tennessee Avenue, which is in the resort’s Tourism District, have been on the table for years.
Carol Harney, CEO of the AIDS Alliance, said she's proposed multiple locations for the exchange to move to, but none has worked out.
Harney said officials rejected moving the needle exchange to the Baltic Clinic at Tennessee and Baltic avenues for reasons unknown to her. Moving the program to a parking lot area on Pennsylvania Avenue was also rejected because it was a block away from the back entrance of a school.
The AIDS Alliance was also offered to move into temporary trailers in the area of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, paid for by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
Harney said the temporary trailers did not meet the needs of the program, so the alliance turned down the city's offer.
In 2020, a proposal to buy a building at 727 Mediterranean Ave. and move the program there was rejected by Mayor Marty Small Sr., Harney said.
Small said he never rejected the proposal.
"Mayor Small has not spoken with the AIDS Alliance regarding any proposal to move to a building on Mediterranean Avenue and has not informed them of any rejection of said proposal," said Rebekah Mena, public information officer for the Mayor's Office.
Councilman Kaleem Shabazz said the AIDS Alliance rejected offers to move the services to the mainland and to mobile units three years ago.
"Some people might think we jumped up and just said, 'Let's close it without any plan or thought,' and that's not what happened," Shabazz said.
In 2018, Harney said the mobile units would be "dramatically less effective" than having a fixed site.
And since most clients get to the program on foot, the alliance has emphasized the need for an accessible location.
"If the data said the best place to put a program is in a van on a highway out of municipality, we would be doing that," Jennifer Dunkle, a professor of social work at Stockton University, told council Wednesday. "But the data shows it needs to be a fixed site. Mobile sites are very useful in conjunction with a fixed site. It's not either or."
The first needle exchange program in the country opened in San Francisco in 1988.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30 years of research since then have shown such programs are cost effective, help reduce drug overdoses, encourage users to seek treatment and reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis.
Research from the CDC also shows exchange programs do not lead to more needles being discarded around communities. Officials from the AIDS Alliance said Atlantic City’s needle exchange garnered a 98% return rate.
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