Harm Reduction and HIV/AIDS Advocates Slam Atlantic City Council for Vote to Close Lifesaving Syringe Exchange

ATLANTIC CITY, NJ –  Earlier today, the Atlantic City Council voted to shut down the syringe exchange at the Oasis Drop-In Center, the only syringe access program in the city and one of only seven in the state. The Council voted to close the lifesaving program despite nearly three  hours of testimony in support of the program by Atlantic City residents, community leaders, policy experts, and advocates for harm reduction and HIV/AIDS prevention. Only two people testified in support of the closure.

“What happened at the council meeting was shameful,” said Jenna Mellor, Director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “The council chose politics over public health, and residents of Atlantic City will die as a result. The Oasis Drop-In Center provides life-saving services to thousands of people every year and is on the front line of the state’s overdose and HIV/AIDS crisis response. The council not only dismissed science, facts, and data, but they also denied multiple people the opportunity to speak, including the head of the syringe exchange.” 

Since 2007, the Oasis Drop-In Center, operated by South Jersey AIDS Alliance, has served thousands of New Jersey residents, providing lifesaving and people-centered care to people in Atlantic City and around the region. Oasis, and other syringe access programs like it, are a critical tool to fighting rising overdose deaths in New Jersey. 

“The vote tonight closes the Atlantic City Oasis syringe access program in 50 days. Despite promises from Council members, South Jersey AIDS Alliance has yet to be included in a stakeholders meeting,” said Carol Harney, Chief Executive Officer of South Jersey AIDS Alliance. “We are committed to working with Governor Murphy and the Atlantic City Council to find a permanent location for South Jersey AIDS Alliance that is accessible for Atlantic City residents outside of the tourism district.”

Discussion at the council meeting revealed that the Atlantic City Health Director recommended the program remain open to council members. This advice was ignored by council members, with Council President Tibbett claiming he “does not remember” the Health Director making that recommendation. 

“Queer, Trans, people living with HIV, and people who use drugs begged straight male Atlantic City councilmembers to keep life saving services in the city,” said Christian Fuscarino, Garden State Equality. “For decades, we have seen the impact of straight politicians making decisions that cost the lives of our people. Haven’t enough died for them to listen? We must come together and find solutions through data and listening to lived experiences.”

The Oasis syringe access program serves more than 1,200 individuals each year — sixty percent of whom are Atlantic City residents — by providing access to lifesaving harm reduction services and linkages to care. These services include sterile syringes, testing for HIV, Hepatitis C, and other bloodborne illnesses, nursing services, naloxone, and referrals to drug treatment. In 2019, the program saw over 9,000 visits to the syringe access program and distributed more than 1,300 naloxone kits to reverse opioid overdoses. 

“Today,  the Atlantic City Council took a step backwards in New Jersey’s fight to end the HIV/AIDs epidemic,” said Axel Torres Marreo, Senior Director of Public Policy and Prevention, Hyacinth Foundation 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with access to new, sterile syringes through a syringe access program are fifty percent less likely to acquire HIV or Hepatitis C, five times more likely to start a drug treatment program, and three times more likely to stop chaotic substance use. 

“The Atlantic City council members ignored the testimony of every speaker and instead chose rumors and stigma over the health and well-being of their constituents,” said Caitlin O’Neill, Director of Harm Reduction Services at the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “One councilmember suggested that people without homes who reside in the city are not “real residents,” and another suggested that the city remove the Rescue Mission homeless shelter. It’s as if our 3 hours of heartfelt testimonies in support of Oasis went unheard. I fear for the health, dignity, and safety of ALL Atlantic City residents without an accessible syringe service program.”

This vote comes on the heels of new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reveals a sharp spike in overdose deaths over the last year, rising from 70,000 deaths in 2020 to 93,000 deaths in 2021.  

“Atlantic City has many pressing issues, from violence to poverty to homelessness, that removing the syringe exchange will not change,” said Steve Young, community activist. “We have many issues we need to come together to solve and we should never ignore. We must, as people who care about human life, come up with a better plan together. We need solutions to address systemic racism head-on.”

New Jersey must expand access to harm reduction to communities across the state. Advocates call on the New Jersey Legislature and Governor Murphy to swiftly pass Senate Bill 3009/Assembly Bill 4847 into law.

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Harm reduction is essential. A harm reduction approach to drug use is the best strategy we have to end the overdose crisis, reduce risks associated with drug use, and affirm the dignity and bodily autonomy of every New Jerseyan.

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