ATLANTIC CITY — After struggling with opioid addiction on and off for nearly a decade, things came to a head for Amanda Clinton last year. She was living in a car with her boyfriend when she found out she was pregnant.
“That’s when I said, ‘I’m tired of living like this,’” said Clinton, 34, of Galloway Township. “It was horrible. I was so tired of being sick and tired.”
Clinton turned to the Oasis Drop-In Center on Tennessee Avenue, where she had previously used the clean syringe access program, to help her get on medically assisted treatment for her addiction to heroin.
“They prescribe Suboxone for free, which is huge. You can just go there and get connected with the program,” Clinton said.
Suboxone is a prescription medicine used to treat adults who are addicted to opioid drugs.
“The center doesn’t just give you clean needles, either,” Clinton said. “You can go there and get a shower, get some food, they give out free Narcan. It’s a huge help.”
Clinton said if it wasn’t for the needle exchange program, she would have resorted to dangerous measures.
“I probably would have just used somebody else’s (needle),” Clinton said. “That’s so dangerous, but when you’re in active addiction, you don’t care.”
Clinton is now sober and in the process of moving into her first home with her children and her boyfriend, Miguel.
When Clinton heard the needle exchange program was at risk of being repealed by City Council, she was shocked.
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“If you get rid of this, where are these people going to go to get help?” Clinton said. “People think it’s a program that just allows people to keep using (drugs), but that’s not true. It helps keep people safe, from spreading diseases.”
Harm reduction experts, health care professionals and advocates have a grave prediction if the program is shuttered.
“People will die,” said Jenna Mellor, executive director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “It really is that straightforward: People will die.”
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 during a June 16 meeting. In a 7-2 vote, the members overwhelmingly supported getting rid of the needle exchange.
“We’re only one town. When do our children come first?” Council President George Tibbitt said during the meeting. “Share the burden, we can’t handle it all.”
Tibbitt and other supporters of the ordinance have said stray needles and an overwhelming number of out-of-towners coming into the city for social services have pushed them to the point of repealing the program altogether.
A public hearing and final vote are scheduled for Wednesday.
During last month’s council meeting, 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.
Mayor Marty Small Sr. has not publicly weighed in on the issue. Attempts to reach the mayor for comment were unsuccessful.
Making the case
Carol Harney, CEO of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, said the services provided to its 1,200 clients can’t be replaced.
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“It’s hard for us to even put it into words how much this program is needed,” Harney said. “There isn’t any other place for people who are actively using to come to (in Atlantic City).”
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.
“For people who are actively using and they come through our doors, it’s like the first step,” Harney said. “They’re saying I want to protect my health, and then our job is to bring them along that continuum to get them to consider their health.”
Harney said if the center is ousted to an inaccessible location, nothing will be solved.
“It’s just so troubling,” Harney said. “There’s always that idea that if social services leave an area somehow clients will follow them or that people come to Atlantic City for social services, but that’s not the case. ... People are not going to move if we move, people are just going to share needles, spread disease and for many people, they will die.”
One client, Anthony, who declined to give his full name due to privacy issues, said contrary to popular belief, the program and staff actively try to get users help for their addictions.
“Every single time I went to the center, I was asked if I wanted to be connected to treatment,” Anthony said. “They were always trying to help me. They aren’t, as some people believe, enabling people to continue using (drugs).”
Naysayers of the program have said that tourism and social services don’t mix. But major tourist destinations such as Las Vegas, New Orleans and Nashville have syringe exchange programs.
Vincent DiGioia-Laird was homeless and addicted to drugs in Atlantic City before the exchange program was implemented.
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“Without these types of programs in place, there are a lot of problems that happen, the main one being infections,” DiGioia-Laird said. “Abscesses, HIV, hepatitis C, that all comes into play when these programs aren’t in place.
During his drug use, DiGioia-Laird often developed infections from using dull, old needles.
“Now I wouldn’t use other people’s needles, but I would reuse the same needles,” DiGioia-Laird said. “I always developed infections, abscesses, I even had a staph infection in my spine from using a pre-used needle.”
DiGioia-Laird, who now works with addicts in the state prison system and runs a nonprofit to help homeless drug users, said he was completely shocked when he heard about the possible fate of the resort’s needle exchange program.
“What are they thinking?” DiGioia-Laird said. “I really don’t understand the whole thought process going on here. It’s not going to save money, it’s not going to get the people out of Atlantic City, they’re not trying to get the drugs out, but they want to get rid of the needle exchange program? I’m just not understanding the logic behind it.”
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.
“An unprecedented outbreak of HIV is at our doorstep, eagerly awaiting for City Council to pass their foolish motion to shut us (needle exchange) down,” Mike Nees, of the AIDS Alliance, said during a rally to save the program July 6.
Due to the state takeover in 2016, all decisions made by council must be approved by the state.
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Murphy expressed his support of the needle exchange during two media briefings last month.
“The Governor’s Office has been in communication with the City Council to offer support for preserving the sterile syringe exchange program in an accessible location within Atlantic City,” Murphy’s spokesperson Alyana Alfaro said in an email Wednesday. “We remain committed to ensuring that Atlantic City and area residents continue to have access to these evidence-based and life-saving services.”
The first needle exchange program in the country was started 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 and encourage users to seek treatment.
Many point to the needle exchange program in Scott County, Indiana, as proof of how effective syringe access programs can also be for fighting infectious disease.
In 2015, the county was the site of the worst drug-fueled HIV outbreak in American history with 235 new infections occurring in just one year.
Mike Pence, then governor of Indiana, hesitantly approved a needle exchange program due to the public health emergency, and by 2020, there was a single new HIV case in the entire county.
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 program garnered a 98% return rate.
Loretta Dutton, who formerly worked as director of HIV care and treatment for the state Department of Health, said repealing the program will send Atlantic City hurtling backward.
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“If this program gets eliminated, we are going to get a lack of containment (of HIV),” Dutton said. “We are going to revert back to those overwhelming numbers that we saw in the 1980s.”
Dutton said a high amount of HIV-positive residents are sexually active.
“If the program gets shut down, people will die, families will experience preventable grief and it would send the message to drug users that their lives don’t matter,” Mellor said. “It will be a choice of politics over public health.”
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