UPDATE: Needle exchange pilot program bill passes House

Posted on 12 May 2015 at 8:18pm

texas-capitolThe Texas House voted overwhelmingly today (Tuesday, May 12) to support a pilot needle exchange program aimed at slowing the spread of HIV and other diseases in select Texas counties.

HB 65 by Rep. Ruth McClendon, D-San Antonio, passed on a bipartisan 92-37 vote with 2 representatives voting present. The program would create test sites for an anonymous exchanges in Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Neuces, Travis and Webb Counties.

“These Needle Exchange Programs have proven successful throughout the nation and have recently been enacted in Kentucky and Indiana. Charitable and faith based organizations have tried establishing these programs in Texas for years, and it is about time the government allows these organizations to help their communities without fear of arrest or government interference,” McClendon said in a statement to the Voice.

The bill would not use state money to establish the program, instead relying on not for profit groups to take on the efforts without fear of prosecution.

When Legacy Community Health’s Januari Leo learned it pass today, she said she was floored. “It was unexpected. We had been following other bills,” she said by phone. Having followed the fight for needle exchange bills in their various iterations since 2003.

The bill has faced an uphill climb in the Legislature in the past. Leo said the bill nearly passed in the 2009 session. Last session right wing groups used it as bait to defeat many of its supporters in the House and Senate. Losing key Republican support left advocates thinking it was all but dead.

Like Leo, Resource Center’s Rafael McDonnell was surprised. He also welcomed the vote. “This is a welcome move by the House to create this pilot program. We’ve seen elsewhere that needle exchanges are effective to reduce the spread of communicable diseases like HIV. It’s a common sense policy and good for public health. I hope it finds support in the state senate.”

The bill’s future in the state senate is uncertain following the defeat last year of its chief Republican supporter former State Sen. Bob Deuell of Greenville by Sen. Bob Hall. The bill had no Senate companion this year.

To Stephen Pace of AIDS Interfaith Network, even if it just won in the House, the time for a needle exchange is still long overdue. “We need needle exchanges in the arsenal. It is part of the comprehensive approach to HIV. The struggle is really about judgment about drug use, not HIV prevention – and we have been involved in the struggle for 30 years,” AIDS Interfaith’s Steven Pace wrote via text message. “It’s time for Texas to get on board with all the real ways of doing HIV prevention.”

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