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Whitman Rejects Panel's Suggestions About Needle Exchange


March 1996

New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman repeated her steadfast opposition to sterile syringe exchange and non-prescription sale of needles through pharmacies after her Governor's Advisory Council on AIDS heard testimony about such programs (Elizabeth Moore, "Experts' Needle Exchange Stand Rejected by State Health Chief," Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), January 25, 1996, p. 37).

As was reported in the December 1995 issue of NewsBriefs, the Advisory Council announced last October that it would begin studying the prospect of establishing needle exchange programs or legalizing the sale of syringes in pharmacies ("Needle Exchange Hearings to Be Held in New Jersey; Whitman Refuses to Consider," NewsBriefs, December 1995, p. 21). The review, part of a larger analysis of AIDS-related policies in New Jersey, was prompted by a number of reports showing needle exchange and legalized sale of needles reduce the spread of AIDS and do not encourage drug use.

The hearings were held at a January 24 meeting of the Council. Dr. Stephen Jones of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta pointed out that New Jersey has the highest rate of HIV after New York and Puerto Rico. About half of those with HIV contracted it through intravenous drug use, he said.

The panel also heard testimony from Beth Weinstein of the Connecticut Department of Health about how needle exchange and legalized sale of needles through pharmacies appear to be helping curb the spread of HIV in that state. Another witness, Rev. Elijah Williams of Newark's Welcome Baptist Church, called needle exchange "immoral," adding that if the policies are enacted addicts are "going to die just a little bit slower than they're dying now."

The Council decided to appoint an ad hoc committee to further examine the issues and report to the Council at its March meeting. The Council's decision on the proposal will be part of a larger annual report sent to the Governor.

After the hearing, Whitman's Health Commissioner Len Fishman said the governor believes needle exchange is a "tacit endorsement for drug use." Fishman said Whitman does favor expanding drug treatment resources. "As important as needle exchange and syringe sales may be to some people, it's not the only weapon we have," he said.

Whitman reiterated her views on syringe exchange and non-prescription sales in a January letter to the Council and during a February 20 speech to the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Eric E. Sterling, editor-in-chief of NewsBriefs and president of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, passed her a question about needle exchange:

Fifty-six percent of the HIV/AIDS cases in New Jersey are injection-related -- the highest in the nation. And almost all children born HIV positive are children of drug addicts who got HIV from used syringes. Almost all public health studies show sterile syringe exchanges are effective in reducing the spread of AIDS and don't result in increased drug usage. This is a good public health practice, like seat belts or lifeguards along the Jersey shore. Finally the question: Why have you directed state public health officials to block sterile syringe exchanges?

"Well, frankly, I take great objection to making an analogy between government sanctioning drug use, which is illegal, by providing needles and lifeguards at the shore," she answered. "The two things are not comparable." Whitman continued:

We outlaw as a society drug use because of what it does to people. I have been in those neonatal care units. I have seen babies withdrawing from crack and other drug addictions. I have seen what happens to their ability to interact with people as they grow older, and I've seen the impact it has. I have also been to our prisons, where fully 67 to 70 percent of those incarcerated are there because of some kind of drug-related problem, whether they were high when they did the crime, or they were committing a crime in order to support a drug habit. It simply is not acceptable in our society, and I feel as badly for the people who lost their lives or have been injured because of crime committed by someone who was on drugs -- as the parents of a young man who just got out of a drug treatment center, went into the bathroom and shot himself up, and had an overdose and died. There are bad things that happen when you use intravenous drug use, and I cannot bring myself to sanction that by having government give out clean needles.

There are other ways to combat AIDS. One of the things that we are very active on is educating mothers on the fact that if they will allow us to do an HIV test on them, that if we start giving them AZT for six weeks prior to delivery -- actually through term, as soon as we can find out that they are HIV positive, and to treat the baby for six weeks after -- we dramatically reduce the case of AIDS -- the number of AIDS in those babies or HIV positive babies. There are ways of combatting AIDS, and I just cannot bring myself to say that the government should be part of supplying needles for an illegal activity. (Applause.)