New Jersey and Atlantic City officials for many years have patiently worked to relocate social services for drug addicts and the homeless from the city’s Tourism District. Keeping them there makes the shore resort a magnet for those needing such services and hobbles the tourism economy that supports the lives of everyone in the region.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and city officials have taken great care and been exceedingly patient with the private organizations providing such services, bending over backward to accommodate their needs and wants. The best of them, the John Brooks Recovery Center, moved the region’s premier addiction treatment program to Mays Landing and Pleasantville.
But the operators, clients and supporters of the Oasis Drop-In Center on Tennessee Avenue have rejected all of the alternatives offered to providing its addict services in the resort Tourism District.
In response, the Atlantic City Council finally has said enough is enough. It will revoke its authorization of the needle exchange program, end its partnership with operator South Jersey AIDS Alliance and compel the present location to close. We have long supported needle exchange to prevent the spread of disease from needle reuse. But we also have strongly supported council’s tough-love stance and hope its members will stay strong and give that ordinance final approval today. Maybe this will motivate the alliance to reach a reasonable agreement with the state and city, and perhaps it is not too late.
Instead of negotiating in good faith the relocation that the people of Atlantic City and Atlantic County need, the center’s supporters have attacked and vilified city officials for performing their duty to the public.
Last week, Jenna Mellor, the executive director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, claimed that ceasing the center’s provision of new syringes to drug addicts would kill people. This is shamefully excessive rhetoric.
First of all, there already are other ways for addicts to get new needles. We think a mobile needle exchange should serve Atlantic City, as is done in other cities. And if that were expanded to serve other South Jersey locations as well, it would probably spare additional lives. The state’s needle exchange pilot program is as ineffective as it is endless, so a reform sparked by Atlantic City could help addicts throughout New Jersey.
But there was much worse last week. An Atlantic City official was savagely attacked, apparently for his position on the center and its needle exchange program.
Councilman MD Hossain Morshed said six armed thugs attacked him Thursday night, breaking bones in his face, injuring his neck and putting him in fear for his life. After blocking his car and waiting for him, he said, the criminals brandished an assault weapon and an automatic pistol as they brutally beat him. Then they threatened, “Don’t go against the drug business. Don’t go against the needle exchange. Don’t go with Sarkos,” referring to James Sarkos, the officer in charge of Atlantic City police until a new chief is named. They continued, “This is a message for Atlantic City. This is a message for Atlantic City police.”
This is contemptible and intolerable. Elected leaders should never fear life-threatening violence from those who disagree with the positions they must take in serving the public. The full force of the law, with state help if needed, must be brought to bear on ensuring these criminal enemies of the people face justice.
Carol Harney, chief executive officer for the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, said, “We categorically deny having anything to do with the cowardly attack on Councilman Morshed.” She called on state agencies to launch an investigation.
Mellor questioned Morshed’s account and called for an investigation by the state Attorney General. “There are major discrepancies between the original reporting and the councilman’s Sunday evening statement,” Mellor said.
Unless clear evidence turns up to the contrary, the councilman’s account of the attack on him must be considered credible.
To the many sound and compassionately considered reasons for removing the Oasis Drop-In Center for addicts from the Tourism District must be added another very strong one — to not do so now might encourage vile bullying that threatens the very basis for civil and peaceful society.
If these recent events have concentrated minds on this issue and an agreement that is fair to the people of Atlantic City and the rest of the county is now possible, that would be the best outcome.