Assembly committee OKs syringe-sale bill

TRENTON – He’s known to one and all in the halls of the Statehouse as the affable liberal custodian of that most liberal – or progressive, if you like – website BlueJersey.com.

But today Jay Lassiter dropped that persona in favor of one as a very serious and recovering ex-drug addict advocating for easier access to clean needles before the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee.

The bill Lassiter spoke in favor of – A1088 – would allow pharmacies in New Jersey to sell without a prescription up to 10 hypodermic syringes at a time to anyone 18 years old or older. The bill is designed primarily to combat the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases by cutting down on the sharing of dirty needles by drug addicts.

The bill passed 8-1 with two abstentions. All the committee’s Democrats voted for it along with Republican Nancy Munoz. Two other Republicans abstained and one, Mary Pat Angelini, voted against it.

It passed the Senate with all Democrats and four Republicans supporting it back in February and is expected to have the votes in the Assembly when it’s put up for a vote later this lame duck session. The governor’s office won’t comment on where the administration stands on the bill.

The highlight of today’s hearing came when Lassiter approached the table before the lawmakers in a packed committee room and delcared: “I’m a recovering IV drug user and my drug of choice was methamphetamine.”

Lassiter knows the lawmakers well and many others in a hearing room jam-packed with lobbyists and others, many of them there for a host of legislation under consideration by the committee.

He alluded to that when he only half-jokingly told the committee: “It’s not entirely impossible that I am the most powerful ex-junkie in New Jersey,” he said, referring legislators to his inlcusion on this year’s Politicker Power List, which features Politicker’s call on the 100 most influential people in New Jersey politics. Lassiter is No. 96 on this list.

The 39-year-old Cherry Hill resident said the availability of clean needles while he was feeding his drug habit was what saved him from contracting hepatitis C or being re-exposed to HIV. He was living in Philadelphia at the time, and used a needle exchange program available to him there.

“The only thing I managed to do successfully while shooting up was to stay away from getting…hepatitis,” Lassiter told committee members.

Lassiter also attempted to appeal to lawmakers by boiling the bill down to a pocketbook issue.

He said taxpayers could save $20,000 a year if addicts don’t need treatment for hepatitis and another $20,000 if addicts don’t contract AIDS.

“This bill can make everyone happy: Liberals can feel good about helping people on the margins and conservatives can be happy they’re helping the governor save money on (hospital) charity care,” Lassiter said.

But some won’t be happy.

John Tomicki, with the League of American Families, called on legislators to come up with a plan for disposal of the needles and asked that people be required to show identification. He also asked that the sale be banned to people from other states.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, who was not at the hearing, says lawmakers can discuss disposal at another time. He said he would oppose the identification idea because it could present a chilling effect for addicts. He also opposes excluding out-of-state residents because the bill could also be helpful to seniors or diabetics who’ve forgotten prescriptions.

He notes that every other state except Delaware allows the sale of needles without a prescription.

Lawmakers like Munoz and Assemblyman Vince Polistina also voiced concerns that there is no provision for disposal of the needles and worried that children could be harmed if they get stuck with them in a playground or some other setting.

But committee Chair Herb Conaway said the disposal issue should be dealt with in a separate bill.

“I think the advantages outweigh the risks,” Conaway said. “You’re never going to get a perfect disposal system. I don’t care what you do.”

Assembly committee OKs syringe-sale bill