Assembly committee poised to move ahead with a ‘personalized’ needle exchange program

TRENTON – The next step in the state’s battle against the spread of HIV-AIDS is headed toward what one supporter says is a kind of individualized needle exchange program.

Under legislation that’s scheduled for a hearing before the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee Monday, the state would remove the prescription barrier to buying hypodermic needles in pharmacies.

Instead, anyone over 18 – with or without a prescription – could buy up to ten needles at a time, no questions asked.

“At the end of the day, this will cut down on the contraction of the AIDS virus through intravenous drug use in a safe and responsible way,” says Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, (D-15), Trenton, and the author and prime sponsor of the measure (A1088) in the lower house.

“We won’t get stuck compounding the transmission of HIV through dirty needles,” Gusciora adds. “Too many addicts share needles and if they have greater access they’ll make that rational decision.”

The state in late 2007 began rolling out needle exchange pilot programs that are now up and running in five cities – Atlantic City, Camden, Paterson, Newark and Jersey City.

Through last December, some 7,100 addicts have participated, according to the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

But Gusciora – also a co-sponsor of the medical marijuana law – says his bill would bring a kind of needle exchange outreach statewide.

“Each addict can have their own needle exchange program,” Gusciora said.

It would come with a price though, as the needles won’t be free as they are in the exchange programs.

Marc Robbins, pharmacist and owner of Robbins Pharmacy in Ewing Township, Mercer County, says needles go for between $15 and $20 for a box of 100; the number they’re often sold in to diabetics.

He figures a pack of 10, if it doesn’t need to be repackaged, might be sold for $5 or so.

But Robbins says he doesn’t want to sell them at all without prescriptions, and doubts whether many of his fellow pharmacists would want to either.

“It’s bringing a bad client in to the business and we don’t want any part of it,” Robbins told State Street Wire in a telephone interview. “They’re a junkie,” Robbins went on, using the street term for addicts. “And they would be better served at a clinic than an actual retail pharmacy.”

But Gusciora says making his legislation law would be an important next step in fighting the spread of AIDS.

A 2005 report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that at least 43% of New Jersey’s 48,000 reported HIV and AIDS cases were transmitted through needles, a rate second only to Connecticut.

A January 2010 state health department report done in conjunction with the University of Medicine and Dentistry pronounced the state’s needle exchange programs as “beneficial … in terms of reducing HIV risks and increasing access to drug treatment and other social services …”

“The program,” the report continued, “holds great promise in preventing the transmission of blood-borne pathogens.”

Up to that point, nearly 5,000 addicts had used the program, with nearly one thousand choosing also to get into treatment programs.

The programs were criticized earlier this year by state Sen. Ronald Rice, (D-28), Newark, as not doing enough for cities. He said then he wants more treatment programs for addicts.

But Gusciora says his bill will help cities like Newark.

“This is just one responsive answer,” he said. “But I think it’ll help particularly in the urban areas because addicts will be able to get clean needles.”

But Robbins, the pharmacist whose store is located in a leafy Trenton suburb, says easier needle sales out of drug stores like his is not the answer.

“I agree with the concept to stop the spread of AIDS,” Robbins said of the greater accessibility to clean needles. “But not from a (needle) distribution standpoint.”

Gusciora says New Jersey is one of only two states in the nation to bar the sale of hypodermic needles without a prescription, the other being Delaware.

The veteran assemblyman says he expects the bill will move out of committee and has enough support among Democrats to pass the full house, though he’s not certain about Republican support.

Four Republican senators joined all 24 Democrats in the Senate to pass the bill last February. The Republicans included two of the caucus’s most conservative members in Sen. Gerald Cardinale, (R-39), Bergen County, and Anthony Bucco, (R-25), Morris County, who voted for the legislation.

Neither the state health department nor the governor’s office would comment on whether the administration supports the proposal.

Assembly committee poised to move ahead with a ‘personalized’ needle exchange program