ATLANTIC CITY — After a concern that the resort has shouldered the burden of providing out-of-towners with social services, City Council on Wednesday introduced an ordinance to get rid of the clean needle exchange program operated by the South Jersey AIDS Alliance.
“We’re only one town. When do our children come first?” said Council President George Tibbitt. “Share the burden, we can’t handle it all.”
The syringe exchange program, started in 2007 as a partnership between the AIDS Alliance and the city’s Health Department, is just one of seven in the state, along with programs in Asbury Park, Camden, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson and Trenton.
“The question is not whether we support the needle exchange. We have supported the needle exchange,” said Councilman Kaleem Shabazz. “The question is can we get our neighboring communities to help us with the drug crisis?”
The ordinance was approved in a 7-2 vote, with Councilman Moisse “Mo” Delgado and Councilwoman LaToya Dunston opposing.
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“Before the needle exchange, what I can tell you is our streets were flooded with needles and drugs, flooded,” Dunston said. “Can I tell you that I see the same flood now in Atlantic City that I saw back then? Absolutely not.”
Delgado said the casino industry and poverty may feed into some of the issues the resort is facing.
“We like to always assume the good parts of the casino industry, but we don’t want to accept the darker parts we know are there,” Delgado said. “Everything from prostitution to drug use is being supported by the industry. ... The biggest dilemma we have in Atlantic City is poverty. If people weren’t poor, they wouldn’t be desperate enough to be making these decisions. If they aren’t surrounded by negative options, then things wouldn’t be the way they are now. There are so many avenues to attack the monster we’re talking about, but to eliminate options and resources because you think someone else is doing it, then you are misinformed.”
Before the vote, Mike Nees, who works for the AIDS Alliance, addressed the council.
“If anyone on this council is truly oblivious enough to believe that our program is what causes drug users to flock to our city, we can alleviate your concern very easily,” Nees said. “Man up, come volunteer. Come meet the 200 people we serve every week. (Because) the vast majority are our loved ones, born and raised (in) Atlantic City.”
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Nees said there are currently more than 600 people in Atlantic City who are HIV-positive.
Although the ordinance was approved, Anthony Swan, the resort’s business administrator, said he would work with Wilson Washington, the director of health and human services for the city, to come up with solutions before the final vote at next month’s council meeting.
“In between first reading and second reading, Dr. Washington and I will be working on possible solutions to provide the council prior to the next vote,” Swan said. “We hope to come up with something that will satisfy the council and the concerns of residents.”
The program is run out of the Oasis Drop-In Center on Tennessee Avenue, which falls within the bounds of the city’s Tourism District. At the center, people can exchange dirty needles for clean ones, take showers, get food, do their laundry and use the phone.
According to the AIDS Alliance, Oasis is also the only publicly accessible source in the city of low-barrier free naloxone, a medication used to treat known or suspected opioid overdoses.
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The fate of the program has long been debated by city officials, residents and advocacy groups, with its location and effectiveness being the most contentious talking points.
Despite their reputation, syringe exchange programs have been shown to have a positive impact on communities suffering from the ramifications of opioid abuse.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these types of programs reduce the rates of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, are cost effective and help reduce drug use and overdoses.
Atlantic County has some of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in South Jersey, with 515 per 100,000 people living with the diseases in 2018, according to the state Department of Health.
A 2000 study from Seattle found new users of syringe exchange programs were five times as likely to attend drug treatment than those who didn’t participate in the program.
Despite the council’s concern that the needle exchange has led to an influx of stray syringes on the streets, the CDC says exchange programs do not lead to more needles being discarded around communities.
As of 2018, Atlantic City’s needle exchange program garnered a 98% return rate, the highest in the state, but had the second-lowest rate of drug treatment admission among the seven programs.
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