In New Jersey we like to think of ourselves as a state with progressive public policies. This is particularly true when it comes to the delivery of health care to citizens who are most vulnerable and in need of government intervention, such as NJ FamilyCare, which provides health services to the state’s poorest children.
But when it comes to the issue of allowing pharmacies to sell syringes, New Jersey’s public policy has been an abject failure. Up until now, only two states, New Jersey and Delaware, forbid this practice without a prescription.
This is a particularly egregious policy as we mark 2011’s World AIDS Day and 30 years in the global fight against the disease. The policy makes no sense and many health care advocates argue it has contributed to drug addicts using dirty or used needles, which has only exacerbated the HIV/AIDS epidemic — particularly in urban areas. In their most recent survey, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that there were 36,974 people in the state of New Jersey living with a diagnosis of HIV infection in 2009, and 19,076 living with an AIDS diagnosis (by comparison, the statistics for New York are 135,018 and 82,703, respectively).
For years, many in the health care community and some legislators, particularly N.J. Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), who is chairman of the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee, have advocated that New Jersey’s law regarding the selling of syringes be changed. Yet, there has been reluctance, and in some cases fear, on the part of our elected officials in the Statehouse to act on this issue. I imagine the thinking has been that voters would see politicians who voted to allow the sale of syringes in pharmacies as advocating or promoting illegal drug use. Yet, one wonders how such an illogical point of view could have been sustained for so many years given that 48 other states do just that.
Hopefully the situation is about to change; legislation to allow pharmacies to sell syringes without a prescription has passed the Assembly Health Committee and the full Assembly is expected to vote on this matter in the next couple of weeks. The state Senate passed a comparable bill nine months ago.
If passed, the new law says that no more than 10 syringes can be purchased by any individual at any one time. But again, no prescription would be required. Who would benefit? First, we are talking about IV drug users and addicts, who would hopefully be using clean needles instead of dirty ones. Further, diabetics who need to inject insulin into their bodies on a regular basis would be helped if this law were passed. The legislation is supported by the New Jersey Hospital Association, the New Jersey Nurses Association, the New Jersey Pharmacists Association, as well as the New Jersey Chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Roseanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance, recently told the Star-Ledger that it costs approximately $618,000 to care for each HIV-afflicted person over a lifetime. Scotti added; “People can kick addiction, but there’s no cure for AIDS.” And according to Conaway, who has fought for this legislation for years; “Often, New Jersey is on the cutting edge of forward-thinking policy with regard to health care, but this time we’re bringing up the rear.”
The time is long overdue for New Jersey to act on this issue. It has been studied to death. Governor after governor have ducked the issue, and individual legislators, like Democratic State Sen. Ron Rice of Newark, have consistently opposed lifting the ban on selling syringes, saying that it would only make drug use in our cities worse. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini, a Republican from Monmouth County said; “The sale of syringes really ignores the reality that drug addiction is destroying lives. I really feel that it’s [repealing the ban] a message of hopelessness.”
I disagree. Allowing the sale of syringes in pharmacies is a message that New Jersey is finally going to do the right thing and protect those who are using dirty needles from themselves and their deadly addiction. It is a message that New Jersey will finally catch up with 48 other states and leave Delaware as the last state standing in the way of sane healthcare policy regarding syringe distribution. It is hoped that Gov. Chris Christie will step up and do the right thing and sign this long-overdue legislation, when and if it gets to his desk. If not, more unnecessary pain and suffering is likely to continue.
Steve Adubato, Ph.D., currently anchors three PBS broadcasts — Caucus: New Jersey, NJ Capitol Report, and One-on-One with Steve Adubato. He also conducts interviews for NJ Today, which airs weeknights on NJTV and covers news, politics and policy from across the state. At 26, he was elected the youngest member of New Jersey’s legislature, where he served three years. He holds a doctorate in Mass Communications from Rutgers University.