South Jersey AIDS Alliance Files Lawsuit to Stop Discriminatory Closure of Atlantic City Syringe Access Program

September 29, 2021 (Atlantic City) — Today, the South Jersey AIDS Alliance (SJAA) filed a lawsuit asking the Atlantic County Superior Court to prevent the Atlantic City ordinance banning syringe access from going into effect on October 12, 2021. 

SJAA is joined, as plaintiffs, by three anonymous Atlantic City residents who walk to the Oasis Drop-In Center for syringe access, and who will be harmed by its closure. In 2020, over 1,200 people accessed new, sterile syringes through the Oasis Drop-In Center. 

“It is our responsibility to do everything we can to protect the people who entrust their health and wellbeing to South Jersey AIDS Alliance,” said Carol Harney, Chief Executive Officer of South Jersey AIDS Alliance. “We’re hopeful that justice will prevail and that people living with a substance use disorder and people living with or at-risk of HIV will continue to have access to essential syringe services.”

A legal remedy is needed because the ordinance banning syringe access is irrational, arbitrary and capricious; violates the state constitutional rights of SJAA and people who use the SAP; and discriminates against SJAA and its clients on the basis of a disability.

“Overwhelming evidence shows that syringe services programs reduce transmission of HIV and hepatitis and overdose, and increase engagement in treatment without the negative consequences often cited by opponents,” said Sally Friedman, Vice President of Legal Advocacy at Legal Action Center.  “Prohibiting syringe services programs due to inaccurate myths and stereotypes about the people who need them denies people life-saving care.” 

Decades of research show the benefits of SAPs, while also showing that they do not cause an increase in crime, violence, or drug use. Benefits include:

  • Reduction of new HIV and Hepatitis C infections by 50 percent
  • Increase in access to drug treatment— people with access to SAPs are five times more likely to start drug treatment and three times more likely to stop chaotic substance use altogether than those without access
  • Increase in safe syringe disposal and decrease in number of improperly discarded syringes

“Atlantic City is on the verge of closing a lifesaving health service supported by public health experts within the city and across the state after new locations for the program were proposed to the Council and met with silence,” said Jenna Mellor, Executive Director of New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “It’s now up to the court to step in and prevent a damaging and discriminatory policy from taking effect.  The stakes are too high and the lives of residents, including residents living with a substance use disorder, are too precious to close syringe services.” 

This closure contradicts the recommendation of Atlantic City Health Director Dr. Wilson Washington. It also contradicts hours of testimony from residents and public health experts in support of the program, some of whom were not permitted to speak

In Atlantic City, 45 percent of all reported HIV cases have been related to injection drug use, showing the need for syringe access as a public health measure. Data from the New Jersey Department of Health shows a 91 percent decrease in new HIV infections in Atlantic City after the SAP opened in 2007. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Pew Charitable Trust lauded a syringe access and drug treatment partnership piloted at the Oasis Drop-In Center as a public health best practice, one that is now being expanded to other New Jersey municipalities. If Atlantic City’s syringe access program closes, this pathway to drug treatment will be shut down as well. 

In 2020, over 3,100 Atlantic City residents visited the hospital due to a substance use disorder, a six percent jump from the previous year. Of these Atlantic City residents seeking care for a substance use disorder, over 350 were senior citizens. 

“Removing the syringe services at the Oasis Drop-In Center will not remove the residents who rely on them, but it will remove the best practices the city has for preventing HIV and Hepatitis outbreaks among all residents and the public at large,” said Caitlin O’Neill, Director of Harm Reduction Services at New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “The Atlantic City Council does not see all the harms that syringe access prevents because syringe access is successfully preventing them. Removing syringe access services is directly targeting people who use drugs, people living with a substance use disorder, and people living with or at risk of HIV. If the concern is homelessness, we need more housing. If the concern is discarded syringes, we need more syringe disposal boxes. If the concern is public drug use, we need more housing and safer consumption spaces. If the concern is poverty, we need living wages and guaranteed income. Removing syringe services is the exact opposite of what will help.”

“To close a syringe access program like that operated at the Oasis Drop-In Center based on misinformation and discrimination is unacceptable, and in direct contradiction to the protections afforded to people living with a disability. The specicious efforts to close Atlantic City’s syringe access program are similar to those I’ve observed in Indiana and West Virginia, with policymakers expressing loose fear about the health and safety of residents that are not grounded in science and, sometimes, without any basis whatsoever. What’s more, this fear-based policymaking forgets that people who use drugs, people living with a substance use disorder, and people living with or at risk of HIV are also residents who deserve access to essential health services like new, sterile syringes.” Leo Beletsky, Professor of Law and Health Sciences and Faculty Director, Health in Justice Action LabLike many SAPs, Oasis Drop-In Center hosts a comprehensive suite of services and connections to support for people living with a substance use disorder and living with or at risk of acquiring HIV. In 2020, the Oasis Drop-In Center distributed over 1,380 Narcan kits (the medicine that reverses an overdose) and is responsible for at least 48 people saved with these kits; provided transportation for 2,500 medical appointments; distributed over 25,800 condoms; helped 42 people pay utility bills and 46 people pay rent; and distributed over 4,600 food bags.

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