A Safer Fix in Atlantic City

Atlantic City

We practice “harm reduction” by using a seatbelt when we drive. Or vaping instead of smoking. Or wearing a helmet when we ski. When I was an IV drug user (pre-2003), I practiced harm reduction by using a clean needle every time. 

Atlantic City, NJ — Neglecting those on the margins flies in the faces of what Democrats are supposed to fight for. Which makes it bewildering and outrageous that Oasis drop in Center, Atlantic City’s only needle exchange site, is under threat from a (mostly democratic) municipal government.

If Mayor Marty Small and (most of) town council get their way, Oasis will have to move from their downtown site to a location on Route 30 that’s  far from the gaze of tourists. But relegating Oasis to the margins puts a lifesaving program out of reach for most of Atlantic City’s IV drug using population.

Today I joined ragtag coalition of Hard Reduction devotees in Atlantic City to support Oasis and urge a more robust embrace of harm reduction policies, like needle exchange, which limit the damage drug users do while they’re out there using.

When it was my turn to speak I reminded everyone that when IV drug users are forced to share (and reuse) their syringes, HIV and hepatitis transmissions spike, a costly and unnecessary burden on Atlantic City taxpayers and a health system still reeling from Covid.

I emphasized that having nowhere to take our dirty syringes means more bio-hazardous waste in the community putting police and first responders, such as paramedics, at greater risk for cross-contamination.

Rev. Dr. Leslie Robin Harrison, Pastor at Mt Zion AME Church, emceed today’s event. She’s on the board of the NJ Harm Reduction Coalition.

“Oasis is a safe place where the neglected, dejected, and rejected are non-judgmentally accepted,” Rev. Harrison told InsiderNJ. “At Oasis, they flourish and practice good self-care because they are receiving holistic assistance and are genuinely accepted without judgement.”

Mike Nees coordinates care at the South Jersey AIDS Alliance.

“Our leaders say that addiction is a disease,’ Mr. Nees told InsiderNJ. “If that’s the case, (booting Oasis) is akin to shutting down the hospital to make sick people go away. It won’t work. These are our people, our families. There’s a reason good cities have hospitals. And there’s a reason good cities take care of their most vulnerable.”

Christian Fuscarino runs Garden State Equality, NJ’s largest LGBT org. He noted that LGBTQ people are roughly 4x more likely to need places like Oasis than the general population.

“Studies show that upwards of 30% of LGBTQ-identified people abuse substances compared to only 9% of those who identify as heterosexual,” Mr. Fuscarino told InsiderNJ.”Every LGBTQ person should be outraged at any effort to remove a harm reduction center from our state and view it as a direct attack on our community. We’ve already seen the devastating impact of politicians making decisions about our health with the AIDS epidemic and once again we have politicians standing in the way of life saving services for queer and trans folks. These services must exist in every community throughout our state, especially in Atlantic City—a city that has been a home to the LGBTQ population for generations.”

We’ve seen this nightmare before. The Democrats running Camden pulled  the same stunt a few years ago and there was no needle exchange  program in Camden County for nearly 3 years. It got so bad, I took to running a bootleg needle exchange from the trunk of my car

It hurts, it actually hurts my heart, to contemplate how many expensive and dangerous blood-borne diseases were circulating in Camden County that entire time.

A clean syringe costs about a dollar. A lifetime treatment of hepatitis or HIV comes with an astronomically high six-figure price tag. If that math is not compelling enough to convince these Democrats in South Jersey to get their act together, but I’m not a moral argument’s really gonna work on these people either. 

And that makes me sad. Because we are supposed to be the party of compassion who sticks up for those people on the margins.

I spent most of my 20s shooting meth. I’m the living embodiment of what can happens when the government does not force junkies to share needles. I thrive today because someone cared enough about me to make sure these kinds of programs were available for me when I needed them. I take this work seriously because it’s my job to make sure the next generation of drug users are shown the same compassion and common sense and grace that I received.

Jay Lassiter is the most politically influential ex-junkie in New Jersey. 

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