Two-and-a-half years after Gov. James E. McGreevey took office and pledged to legalize needle exchanges to curb the spread of HIV and AIDS, frustrated New Jersey activists and lawmakers are still waiting for a program to materialize. Last month, governing bodies in Atlantic City and Camden, two cities hard-hit by the virus, grew tired of waiting and passed ordinances creating local exchange programs. The Atlantic County prosecutor, with the support of the state attorney general, immediately challenged the move. In Camden, the state-appointed chief operating officer has threatened to veto it.
These are battles needle exchange advocates did not expect to fight on McGreevey’s watch. Still, advocates of programs to exchange drug users’ contaminated needles for clean ones are pleased the issue has been revived. The local skirmishes have lit a fire under legislators who promise to deliver a bill McGreevey will support. The state assembly majority leader vowed to introduce a bill when the Legislature returns after its summer break. New Jersey has more than 45,000 AIDS cases, fifth-highest in the nation. Intravenous drug use is linked to 45 percent of the adult and teen HIV infections, much higher than the 25 percent national rate, according to state and federal data. Delaware and New Jersey are the only states without legal exchange programs or a law that allows non-prescription sale of needles. Opponents of these programs argue they condone illegal drug use.