Residents, Faith Leaders, & Harm Reduction Advocates Rally in Support of Atlantic City Syringe Access Program

July 6, 2021 (Atlantic City, NJ) — This afternoon, local leaders joined harm reduction advocates, faith leaders, and community members to celebrate the successes of Atlantic City’s syringe access program— called the Oasis Drop-In— and demand that it remain permanently open and accessible. This rally comes two weeks after the Atlantic City Council introduced an ordinance to repeal the city’s lifesaving syringe service program, which will be put to its final vote on July 21.  

“In 2019, in Atlantic City alone, we had over 9,000 visits to our syringe access program. Every time someone visits a harm reduction program it is one less chance they will get HIV, Hepatitis C, or be lost to a preventable overdose, and one more chance they will get access to evidence-based drug treatment and community care,” said Carol Harney, CEO of South Jersey AIDS Alliance, which operates the Oasis Drop-In. “If Atlantic City closes the syringe access program, more Atlantic City residents will die of overdoses and many other preventable deaths.” 

HIV rates have dramatically dropped in New Jersey since the introduction of syringe access, when the state’s rate of HIV infection due to injection drug use was twice the national average. Yet New Jersey has only seven syringe access programs serving the state’s nine million people, and such programs are available in only 1.2 percent of New Jersey municipalities. If the Atlantic City Council votes to close the Oasis Drop-In, New Jersey will be down to six such programs. 

“In the midst of an overdose crisis, New Jersey needs to be leveling up our harm reduction services, not closing them down. As a proud product of Atlantic County, our fight to become the state’s first syringe access program is something I’m proud of and the reason I fight to expand harm reduction across New Jersey,” said Jenna Mellor, Executive Director of New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “After suing the state to open this lifesaving program, Atlantic City is now saying that tourism and social services cannot coexist, and that’s simply incorrect. If Atlantic City is going to be the region’s hub, it needs to be the region’s hub in all things, including public health. Look at Las Vegas, New York City, Jersey City, Asbury Park— they show that, not only is it possible for Atlantic City to be both a tourism hub and a public health hub, but it’s morally imperative. The alternative is losing residents to preventable deaths, which is not acceptable and certainly not leadership.” 

Atlantic City has been operated by the State of New Jersey since 2016. If the Council votes yes on second reading July 21, any change must be approved by the state to take effect. 

“As a faith leader, mother, counselor, and former Atlantic City EMT, I know that closing lifesaving harm reduction services doesn’t stop drug use, but rather stops people from connecting to the care they deserve ,” said Rev. Dr. Leslie Harrison, pastor at Mt. Zion AME in Riverton. “The War on Drugs told us that we need to not accept drug use and that syringe access is counter to community safety, and that’s a lie. Our communities are safest when we all have the resources we need to survive and thrive, including people who use drugs. Not a single one of us is disposable. It is time to reject the War on Drugs and embrace harm reduction, fullstop, in Atlantic City and across New Jersey.” 

New Jersey was the last state in the nation with a legal pathway to syringe access, due War on Drugs and “tough on crime” rationale by politicians. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, syringe access programs reduce new HIV and Hepatitis C infections by 50 percent and prevent overdose deaths. When residents have access to syringe services, they are five times more likely to access drug treatment.  Since December 2019, the Oasis Drop-In has piloted a program connecting syringe access  participants to drug treatment that is considered a national best practice, and 68 people have been connected to treatment through this pilot to-date.  

“I’m a Democrat because Democrats are supposed to care about people on the margins. Democrats care about people with HIV/AIDS. Democrats are the party of compassion. Or at least they’re supposed to be. But what’s happening right here in Atlantic City, where the Democratic cowardice is jeopardizing the only needle exchange program in Atlantic City, I have to ask…why are Democrats suddenly behaving the exact opposite of how Democrats are supposed to behave? Why are our elected leaders refusing or unable to show leadership?,” said Jay Lassiter, award-winning journalist and podcaster. “I spent over a decade and most of my 20s shooting drugs. I thrive today because someone cared enough about me to make sure these kinds of programs were available for me when I needed them. I take this work seriously because it’s my job to make sure the next generation of drug users are shown the same compassion and common sense and grace that I received.”

The Atlantic City Council, which is majority Democratic, mirrors largely Republican-led efforts to close syringe access programs nationwide.  Councilwoman Latoya Dunston and Council Vice President Mo Delgado, both of whom voted against the Atlantic City ordinance to close the Oasis Drop-In, attended the rally to hear directly from residents, faith leaders, and advocates about the importance of syringe access.

“I’m here to say that harm reduction works. I see it firsthand, every day. Syringe access saves lives. Syringe access treats people with the inherent dignity and value we all deserve. People across New Jersey and the nation are in solidarity with the residents of Atlantic City who deserve life-saving syringe access services and leadership that does not put their lives in jeopardy for politics,” said Eddie Frierson, Harm Reduction Manager for Hyacinth Foundation and lead of the Jersey City, Paterson, and Trenton syringe access programs. “We are here to say: people who use drugs are not disposable, and the War on Drugs and people who use them needs to end immediately. That starts with keeping the Oasis Drop-In Center open.” 

“As a resident of Atlantic City and a harm reduction provider,” said Mike Nees, Care Coordinator at South Jersey AIDS Alliance, “I can’t overstate how terrifying and inhumane it is that my elected leaders might ban an essential public health service in the midst of an overdose crisis and on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic. Atlantic City, we all do better when we all do better, and that includes people who use drugs. We call on you today to make the smart choice, the humane choice, and the whole-hearted leadership choice to save the Oasis Drop-In Center.”

Watch the event livestream here

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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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