ATLANTIC CITY — Amid growing concerns about how best to address opioid and heroin abuse, as well as improve the perception of the resort’s Tourism District, City Council is exploring do-ing away with the city’s syringe-exchange program.
Sixth Ward Councilman Jesse O. Kurtz sponsored an ordinance that would abolish two existing laws establishing the program — 55-2014 and 85-2007 — but the ordinance was pulled from Wednesday night’s council agenda. He says that while he is not against the needle-exchange program, he thinks it does not belong in the Tourism District.
Kurtz, who was not at the meeting, said he will spend “the next month or so” discussing the matter with stakeholders in an effort to present a revised regulation at April’s meeting. He also mentioned the possibility of holding a community meeting to further discuss options for the program.
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New Jersey has six locations throughout the state — Asbury Park, Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark and Paterson — with approved syringe-exchange programs. The federally funded program in Atlantic City is located at the South Jersey AIDS Alliance Oasis Drop-In Center on South Tennessee Avenue, between Pacific and Atlantic avenues, in the Tourism District.
According to drug-policy officials, Atlantic City’s program is the largest in the state in terms of volume.
A spokeswoman for the South Jersey AIDS Alliance did not respond to a request for comment.
Roseanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, said 25 percent of people who seek assistance at a needle exchange are accepted into drug-treatment programs and many more receive assistance for other health issues. She said she understands officials’ frustration with finding solutions to the opioid and heroin epidemic but that it was “wrong to blame the needle-exchange program” for contributing to it.
“(City officials) are grappling with, what I believe, is a very challenging issue, but the way to handle that isn’t to be removing one of the key services” that keeps dirty needles off the street and provides people a place to properly dispose of them, Scotti said.
The city’s syringe-exchange program has been successful in the decade since it was established, she said. She specifically cited a “dramatic” decrease in HIV-positive rates reported by city residents.
In 2007, the year in which Atlantic City became the first municipality in New Jersey to establish an exchange program, 39 city residents reported being HIV-positive, state data show. In 2016, the most recent year for which information is available, there were eight.
Kurtz said his intent is not to rid the city of the program altogether but to find a location that is “more appropriate.” He said his ordinance “centers around the real problem, which is that the needle exchange is the only game in town for people in the southern part of New Jersey.”
“As we’re trying to rebuild the city and improve the Tourism District, the fact comes out that it’s not the place for it,” Kurtz said Monday, “both for tourists, but as well for the people who need the help and assistance. There should be one of these in each county in South Jersey, not just Atlantic City.”
Sgt. Kevin Fair, spokesman for the Atlantic City Police Department and a former narcotics officer, said in the 10 years since the exchange program has been active, he has not noticed a measurable increase in drug activity or associated crimes being committed in the vicinity of the needle exchange. Fair said the department would continue to enforce the law as it stands and would respond appropriately to any changes council makes to existing ordinances.
Council’s next meeting will be 5 p.m. April 18 in the Henry “Hank” Tyner Memorial Council Chambers, second floor of City Hall.