Needle-exchange program passes Senate committee

Posted on 05 Mar 2009 at 7:05pm
By Jackie Stone Associated Press

Measure would prevent DAs from prosecuting state-sanctioned health programs that let IV drug users trade dirty needles for clean ones

AUSTIN — Legislation to protect needle-exchange programs operated by local health departments won approval in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday, March 3 after brief testimony in favor of the bill.

The proposal would prevent district attorneys from prosecuting state-sanctioned health programs that allow intravenous drug users to trade out dirty syringes for clean ones. The committee voted 5-1 to send the bill to the full Senate.

Republican Sen. Robert Deuell, a Greenville physician who introduced the bill, said evidence from other states with exchange programs does not show increased drug use.

"There has been much critical evidence to show that it decreases HIV and hepatitis in those communities," he said, "which alleviates a lot of human suffering, but it also saves states money because the people who contract HIV and hepatitis, more often than not, end up having state programs or services."

Deuell also proposed a needle-exchange program bill in 2007.

A pilot needle-sharing program for Bexar County was tacked on to Medicaid legislation in 2007 after Deuell’s statewide program passed the Senate and was left pending in the House health committee.

However, the state attorney general ruled last year that the language of the legislation left exchange operators open to prosecution for possession of drug paraphernalia. Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed had warned local officials that she would go after anyone in possession of the needles, regardless of the reason.

In written and vocal support Tuesday, law enforcement and health practitioners said the proposed legislation would prevent the spread of disease among drug users and prevent its spread to the families of drug users, children who find dirty needles and others who are stuck by dirty needles.

Retired Bexar County Constable Jimmy Wilborn told the committee Tuesday that the legislation would lower the chances of police officers contracting disease from contaminated syringes.

"My partners were stuck with needles when we were executing search warrants. As a constable in Precinct 2, two of my people were stuck with needles," he said. "The fact of the matter is, if these people are distributing these needles, it’s going to be better for the police officers because of one reason — because they are going to be exchanging these things."

The Texas Department of State Health Services has predicted that 100 new cases of HIV could be prevented in the first year of implementing a needle-exchange program.

Texas is the only state that doesn’t allow syringe exchange programs of any kind.

The federal Centers for Disease Control reported that needle-sharing programs do not encourage drug use and that they decrease the spread of HIV and encourage users to seek treatment.

However, the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy has released other research that says exchanging dirty syringes does not change addicts’ behavior and doesn’t address the behavior that leads to spread of HIV and hepatitis.

The needle-exchange bill is SB188.

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