Friday, June 09, 2006

Facts For Needle Debate

On Wednesday, the state Senate passed a bill that would legalize the sale of syringes without a prescription. Increasing the availability of these needles, supporters say, will help prevent the spread of diseases like AIDS and hepatitis B and C among intravenous drug users. More needles, less needle sharing, fewer opportunities to spread blood-borne disease.

The House passed a similar bill in November, but for some unexplained procedural reason must pass both houses again before going to Governor Mitt Romney who plans to veto the measure. Romney's spokesman raised fears of the program undermining our ability to enforce drug laws and claimed that we'd now be seeing dirty needles all over our parks and playgrounds. Kerry Healey, who also opposes the measure, called it a threat to public safety, since it makes it easier for drug users to use drugs.

Of course, what the bill's opponents don't ever seem to mention is that 47 other states already have this law on their books. If it were a public safety disaster, you would think that fewer than 94% of the US would allow over-the-counter sale of these needles. It also means that there should be lots of data about what actually happens once this law is implemented.

To my mind, there are four questions that I am interested in regarding this bill:

1) Does it reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases? If the law doesn't help curb AIDS and hepatitis, then there's no point in enacting it. Help Stop AIDS cites evidence from Connecticut that syringe sharing dropped 40% after enacting this law. Access to clean needles has been shown to reduce AIDS or hepatitis in New Haven, Tacoma, Australia and New York City.

2) Does it increase the use of illegal intravenous drugs? Opponents all claim that it makes using these drugs easier, so intuitively one might think that increasing the availability of needles will increase the use of drugs that require needles. The Drug Policy Alliance notes that there have been seven major government-funded reports which show that access to sterile syringes does not increase drug use. There have been no reports that contradict these findings. A study published in 2001 in the American Journal of Public Health found no statistically significant increase in IV drug use between cities where needles were available over-the-counter and those where they were not.

3) Does it increase the risk to law enforcement officers of needlestick injuries? If there are more needles available, will they be increasingly used as weapons? According to the Drug Policy Forum of MA, in Connecticut, there was a 66% decrease in syringe stick injuries to police officers over a six-month period after pharmacy sales legislation passed. I have not found any studies that show an increase in needlestick injuries after allowing over-the-counter sales of syringes.

4) Does it increase needle waste? The bill that was passed by the Senate just legalizes the sale of these needles, and is not a needle exchange program. With needle exchange programs, there is not a risk of increased needle waste because one has to return used needles before getting clean ones. To combat needle waste, the bill also proposes fines of up to $15,000 for needle litterers. It also creates needle collection centers through the department of health, medical facilities and the pharmacies themselves. A pilot program in Baltimore that created boxes for needle disposal was a success there.

Those questions answered, the only thing left to ask is why, since she is supposed to be an expert criminologist, Kerry Healey does not support these measures.