New Jersey: Drug Policy Reformers Optimistic for Change Under McGreevey

A needle exchange program proposed by New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey has buoyed the hopes of drug policy reformers, who hope the state will begin handling addiction as a public health matter. In January, McGreevey proposed a hospital-based program in which addicts could exchange dirty needles for clean ones to fight AIDS. At present, needles and syringes can be obtained legally only by prescription. New Jersey is one of the few states where drug use remains the leading cause of HIV transmission. State and federal health officials say New Jersey ranks fifth overall in the number of HIV/AIDS cases.

"We're very hopeful that the McGreevey administration will lead the state farther away from addressing drug addiction through law enforcement and toward more of a public health approach," said John Hullick of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence-New Jersey. State Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge) is working with McGreevey's staff on legislation to establish the exchange program. "Putting addicts in prison doesn't serve the public," Vitale said. But resistance to the exchange program is also taking shape. Assembly member Samuel Thompson (R-Old Bridge) said providing needles would encourage drug use and send a mixed message to children.

Political hurdles aren't the only obstacles. Treatment providers who supported past needle exchange programs may now see them as possibly cutting into their share of state funding. Hullick supports legislation requiring health insurers to cover addiction treatment on a par with physical ailments. Such an arrangement would not cost the state money and would address a decline in treatment availability, he said. Insurers oppose such legislation and said the move would raise premiums and the number of the uninsured. Insurers also questioned treatment's ability to keep addicts clean.

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