Finally, it looks like legislation will soon be approved allowing New Jersey drug users to exchange dirty needles for clean ones. Bill S494, sponsored by Senator Nia Gill (D-Essex), has been a long time coming. It doesn’t go as far as it should, but it is better than nothing. Instead of a statewide clean needle exchange program, which is preferable, the legislation, passed this week by the Senate Health Committee (Senator Tom Kean Jr. voted against it) calls for a pilot program in six municipalities. Two of the communities expected to take advantage of the bill (once it is passed into law) will be Atlantic City and Camden. In both communities, the spread of HIV from needle sharing among infected drub users has been a huge health problem. The lack of a state law allowing clean needle exchange has only made the problem worse in urban centers that have served as a haven for the spread of HIV/AIDS since the mid 1980s. For years, opponents of needle exchange have argued that such a program would increase drug use or crime. Well, the fact is, that couldn’t be further from the truth. What is true is that clean needle exchange programs reduce the transmission of the HIV virus, hepatitis and other diseases acquired through needle sharing. The reason we know this is that 49 out of 50 states currently allow for some form of a needle exchange program. That’s right, New Jersey, is the ONLY state in the nation without such a program”this despite the fact that our state has one of the country’s highest AIDS/HIV rates stemming from needle sharing. The problem has been particularly bad for women and their children, infected with the virus in the womb. To say that New Jersey not having a needle exchange program is a disgrace is an understatement. It’s insane. The legislature has allowed a few ill-informed, pigheaded legislators to block this much-needed public health program. Chief among them has been Senator Ron Rice (D-Essex) who sits on the Health Committee. Rice has continually argued that needle exchange will make the drug problem worse and has proposed a bill to provide $100 million for drug treatment and HIV/AIDS related programs. That part of Rice’s legislative agenda is positive, which is why it is a great thing that the current needle exchange legislation to allow the pilot program in six municipalities also calls for $10 million for drug rehab. Simply put, S494 is a compromise between the needle exchange philosophy and the drug treatment approach. It never should have been an either-or proposition, but somehow Rice and those who supported his point of view have struck enough fear into their colleagues to stymie any effort to move forward. State Senators have been convinced that any effort to pass a needle exchange program would make them vulnerable to being characterized as “soft on drugs” in future elections. That’s crazy. What happened to all those legislators in 49 other states who supported needle-exchange programs? Nothing. So, our legislators have been spooked by a political phantom for nearly a decade and now have finally done something. As I said, in many ways it is way too little. However, it isn’t too late, particularly for those ill drug addicts who are currently sticking dirty needles into their arms and transmitting this deadly disease, not just to themselves, but to their babies. Let’s only hope that the pilot initiative is passed in the next few weeks and the Corzine Administration, lead by Health and Senior Services Commissioner Dr. Fred Jacbos, leads the effort to make the needle exchange program statewide as soon as possible. Lives are at stake and they have been for too long. There is no excuse not to act. I’d like to congratulate the Senate for finally moving, but that would be like patting an employee on the back for doing the absolute bare minimum their job requires. Then again, this needle exchange legislation is better than the status quo.