Tuesday, June 27, 2006

More Healey/Hillman Fear Mongering on Needles

Current Republican Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey and her would be successor, candidate Reed Hillman, are running around the state campaigning hard against the bill legallizing over-the-counter sales of hypodermic needles that the legislature passed but Governor Romney is expected to veto. Healey and Hillman both continue to make assertions unsupported by any facts, despite the fact that Healey claims to be an expert on crime and Hillman was formerly the state's top trooper.

Here is Reed Hillman as quoted in the Globe's political blog:

"I'm not ready to give someone who is abusing heroin the benefit of the doubt when it comes to properly disposing a dirty needle."
Here's what Hillman fails to point out: in areas without needle exchange programs, there is currently no way for users to properly dispose of dirty needles short of sneaking into a hospital. The bill under consideration creates needle collection centers. Not only does this add a point of contact with addicts that could aid intervention, but if even one user disposes of their dirty needle correctly, it's an infinite percentage better than the 0% that are currently doing so.

As far as increasing the amount of syringes lying around goes, Johns Hopkins did a two month study with a two year later follow-up after Baltimore started up a needle exchange program in 1994. The first study showed that discarded syringes as a percentage of total waste did not increase in the months following the program's initiation compared to a measure taken before it started. Not only that, but in the follow-up study, the amount of needle litter actually decreased. One might argue that maybe there was less litter because there were fewer addicts, but then you can't claim, as Reed Hillman does, that increased access to clean needles increases drug use.

In addition, a 2003 study of New York's syringe program showed that access to clean needles did not increase discarded needles or syringes on the street or in the regular trash recepticals. In fact, the law brought about educational efforts promoting the safe disposal of used needles. New York experienced neither an increase in needlestick injuries to municipal workers (law enforcement, sanitation, etc) or an increase criminal drug-related activity.

Opponents of the bill also raise the specter of bandits holding up stores with newfound needles. This strikes me as absurd on the face of it. How many establishments are held up with needles (illegal) compared to guns (legal) or knives (also legal)? Heck, there have been more than 200 shootings in Boston alone this year, and I don't see the state GOP saying we should ban guns. Not only that, but as I mentioned previously, there was a 66% decrease in syringe stick injuries to police officers over a six-month period after pharmacy sales legislation passed in Connecticut. In Canada, when they were considering needle exchange programs in prisons, they studied prisons in Europe that gave inmates access to clean needles. They found no evidence that the prisoners were using the syringes as weapons, and there was no increased danger to the staff. I know it's not exactly comparable, but one would think that if any population was more likely to use sharps as shivs, it would be convicted criminals. The evidence did not bear that out.

I don't know why this issue gets under my skin (pardon the pun) so much -- I don't work in public health or AIDS advocacy or anything and I don't have any particular sympathy for junkies. I think it's because Healey and Hillman are making claims without any evidence to back them up, aside from the fact that little Billy once found a syringe on the Common. They are purposely misleading the public with scenarios that run contrary to the experiences of the 47 other states where syringes are legal (including every state that borders Massachusetts). If this is the kind of leadership we can expect from a Healey/Hillman administration, then count me out.