Currently, there are approximately 185 Needle Exchange Programs (NEP) operating across the country according to a fact sheet released by the ACLU.
They’ve all proven their worth to the populations that they serve, as they help clients in both tangible and intangible ways. Many provide so much more than just syringes. The ACLU’s factsheet also mentions that many of these programs also provide assorted public health services (i.e.-substance abuse treatment, education on sexually transmitted diseases, etc.)
NEPs are a particularly hot topic of conversation now. GOP vice presidential nominee, Indiana Governor Mike Pence has been blamed for a “spiraling HIV outbreak” in his home state of Indiana after he reportedly “dragged his feet” before finally agreeing to lift a ban on NEPs.
Trump just called Pence a "great guy." The same guy who let AIDS spread like wildfire in IN while he "prayed on" clean needle exchange. CUNT
— Daisy's Mom (@FemmesUnafraid) August 8, 2016
Here in New York City, NYS and NYC Heath Departments, the American Foundation for AIDS Research and the NEPs themselves work together to keep these programs going. The NYS Department of Health runs training programs for NEP staff, and prepares a handbook for program staff. In 2000, the NYS Legislature authorized a “demonstration program to expand access to sterile hypodermic needles and syringes.” As part of the program, approved pharmacies and licensed healthcare providers can provide or sell up to 10 hypodermic needles or syringes to persons over the age of 18.
If we go one state over to New Jersey, circumstances are a bit different. According to “Desperate N.J. needle exchange programs plead for cash,” an August 2016 article on nj.com, programs in New Jersey have been forced to rely on funding from private foundations.
To make matters worse, last month New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a measure which would have provided some funding to these programs.
Roseanne Scotti is the State Director of New Jersey’s Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). The DPA has offices all over the country. The New Jersey office has been open for 14 years, and, according to Scotti, needle exchange was the first issue they took on. She continues, noting that people had been trying to address the issue for years before that.
“For whatever reason, New Jersey was resistant to this,” she says.
People’s efforts finally paid off in 2006 when legislation was passed which would allow for 6 syringe programs in New Jersey. Currently, the state has 5 such programs.
“We’re really an advocacy organization. We’re not a direct service organization,” explains Scotti.
To that end, they’ve worked to get a bill passed which would allow for the sale of syringes in pharmacies, and they also provide tech support and training to the NEPs in the state. Also, when programs in Camden and Patterson ran out of supplies, the DPA tried to help with a crowdfunding campaign
Scotti notes that officially, the state has never stepped up to fund NEPs, but she mentions that recently, one senator had managed to get $95,000.00 set aside for these programs—all of which would have gone to help purchase supplies.
Unfortunately these funds were included in a measure which Governor Christie vetoed.
“The state really needs to step up and support them like other states like NY do,” says Scotti of the relationship which exists between NEPs and the New Jersey state government.
The tense relationship between the NEPs and state government isn’t the norm, according to Scotti.
“When we did these programs, we have found….all the cities that did these programs are required by the state to pass a city ordinance,” she explains, “All of those city ordinances have passed without a problem.” Scotti also mentions that in general, the programs have had the backing of faith leaders, and that people in the community have supported these programs because they understand that the people who are getting these services are in their community.
“Elected officials are behind the curve. People in the community have always supported these programs,” says Scotti, “They get that this is the right thing to do to address this public health issue. These programs have so much research behind them.”
The New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance (NJRUA) is quick to defend NEPs. On their website, the NJRUA says that it is “…a working alliance of activists and allies who are dedicated to promoting, defending, and advocating for the human rights of sex workers in the state of New Jersey.”
For them, discourses on needle exchange are very relevant to their advocacy work.
“I would say from our perspective access to needle exchanges is a necessary issue to work on if people are serious about the human rights of sex workers and people who trade sex,” explains NJRUA co-founder, Derek Demeri.
Demeri couldn’t be more right. According to “10 Facts on HIV and Sex Work,” a December 2015 Huffington Post article, sex workers are more likely to share needles as stigma creates barriers which make it harder for them to access clean needles.
“What's more horrifying is the silence from organizations that receive millions in nonprofit donations to abolish sex trafficking exploitation yet do nothing around this issue?” asks Demeri, ”Where are groups like the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking which refuse to collaborate with the state’s only sex worker rights group? Nowhere, because they’d rather not deal with real issues, only absorb more money so they can push an ideology and nothing practical for the community.”
With no support from non-profits, and no support from government agencies, sex workers are but one of many groups left searching for options as funding for needle exchange programs is cut.
Though New Jersey’s NEPs have had to work to overcome some obstacles, they’ve managed to persevere, and there have been many success stories. For example, Rosanne Scotti notes that there have been pregnant women who have given birth to healthy babies, thanks in part to the services they received at a NEP. For some in the community, these programs are also a gateway for them to enter into drug treatment programs.
Scotti also mentions that for many who avail themselves of the services provided by the NEPs, it isn’t just a one-time thing. They have followed up and have had meaningful interaction with program staff.
“There’s really countless success stories at this point,” she says.
While Scotti sees the people who go into these programs, and sees their successes, many politicians like Governor Christie still only see numbers.
“He always says we don’t have the money,” says Scotti.
It is a very flawed argument, because, as Scotti notes, the cost of lifetime care for a patient with HIV and Hepatitis C is far greater.
“There’s huge cost savings here,” she says.
To Governor Christie, and other politicians who are so wrapped up in this numbers game, Scotti offers the following response: “A clean needle costs 10 cents. If you’re saying a person’s life isn’t worth 10 cents, I don’t know what I’d say to you.”