Atlantic City, New Jersey, shut down its needle exchange site last week as the country suffers from a spike in deaths from drug overdoses.
The Oasis Drop-In Center, which serves 1,200 people and is the only syringe service site in the Atlantic City area, will be closed after 14 years following a controversial 7–2 City Council vote.
“It’s going to be devastating for people — it’s already devastating,” Carol Harney, chief executive officer of South Jersey AIDS Alliance (SJAA), which has operated the site since 2007, told Buzzfeed.
The needle exchange site, the largest of seven such sites in New Jersey, provides various medical services to addicts and people in recovery including clean needles, health screenings, overdose-prevention drugs, and addiction treatment.
The decision to close the site was reportedly unpopular among public health advocates but supported by local officials. Out of 50 public comments on the issue, all but two were opposed to closing down the site. City Council members argued that too many people come from out of town to use the needle exchange service and that the site has contributed to syringes littering the boardwalk and parks.
“It doesn’t make sense for Atlantic City to be the only place that has to deal with the drug crisis,” City Council President George Tibbitt said during Wednesday’s nearly three-hour city council meeting.
“We’re all here to protect our reputation and our children,” he said.
During the virtual meeting, Tibbitt held up a plastic jar nearly half-full of needles that he said he found in a park.
“They give out these assisted suicide devices, being the needles, and these people are ending up dead in the streets,” Tibbitt said last week. “We’re taking our streets back. It’s gotten out of control.”
Another council member landed in the hospital earlier this month with a broken nose and eye socket after he was attacked, he believes, by supporters of the needle exchange program. Atlantic City police are investigating the attack.
“I thought they were going to shoot me. I’m thinking about my family and if I died, who was going to take care of my family,” Councilman MD Hossain Morshed said from his hospital bed last week.
Morshed still voted to close down the city’s needle exchange site.
The site’s closure comes after the U.S. saw a 29.4% increase in overdose deaths in 2020 compared to 2019.
More than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. last year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including more than 3,000 in New Jersey alone.
The spike in fatal overdoses has been attributed in part to the coronavirus pandemic, which helped to isolate individuals struggling with addiction. Another factor in rising overdose deaths is increased access to the potent and frequently lethal synthetic opioid fentanyl, which the CDC says is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Dr. Nora Volkow, who directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said this month that one of the factors that contributed to that increase in drug use was “the isolation, social distancing, and that does not allow you to provide Narcan, which reverses overdoses.”
“That despair that people felt, hopefully, will start to be mitigated” as people rebuild their support systems, Volkow said.