The biggest syringe-exchange program in New Jersey is facing pressure from Atlantic City Council, where some members are looking to revoke the local rules permitting its operation.
The South Jersey Aids Alliance has run the federally-funded program for years from an unassuming office building in the state-designated Tourism District. But as the city and state try to revive the Atlantic City Tourism District as well as tackle a spiraling opioid crisis, problems such as discarded needles, panhandlers and overdoses are being linked to the needle exchange. A spokeswoman for the South Jersey Aids Alliance did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Three separate council committees have been grappling with the question of what to do about public health, public safety and other issues some committee members believe stem from the syringe program, Councilman Jesse Kurtz said in an interview on Tuesday. “Of all the contributing factors this has been recognized as the single biggest factor, because it is the only service of its kind toward people with low or no income in all of South Jersey,” he said. (A needle exchange program operates in Camden, but it receives less funding and gives out less than a quarter of the number of needles dispensed by the Atlantic City program).
Kurtz earlier this month placed an item on the council agenda (rescheduled for Wednesday, March 28) that would rescind the ordinances that originally permitted the syringe access program to operate in Atlantic City. But in an interview on Tuesday, Kurtz said he would withdraw that item after discussion with his colleagues. “I’ve been asked to talk to more people,” he said, adding that he plans to propose a community meeting on the topic that will be open to the public.
It is not clear what would be the legal ramifications of rescinding the syringe program’s ordinances. Kurtz said he hopes it would send a message to state officials. “We’re looking for the state to get engaged on this and to facilitate the movement of the needle exchange out of Atlantic City, out of the Tourism District and to disperse it throughout South Jersey,” he said.
New development just one block from the syringe program on Tennessee Avenue has added to the pressure on the City Council and Kurtz said business owners as well as local residents have voiced concerns with the program. One of the developers behind the project that has opened a yoga studio and will soon open a chocolate bar and coffee shop on the street declined to comment for this article.
“I think it’s important that we make the right decision and we do a little more fact-finding,” said Council President Marty Small. That means talking to the original stakeholders and other experts, he said. “That way the city council can make the most informed decisions on behalf of the taxpayers of Atlantic City.”
Mayor Frank Gilliam did not immediately respond to a request for comment.