In July, Massachusetts and Delaware finally joined 47 other states in legalizing over-the-counter syringes and needle exchange programs (NEPs) for IV drug users. (New Jersey is now the lone dissenter.) The legislation follows the publication of studies by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Health and Human Services and the National Academy of Sciences showing that clean-needle exchanges cut the rate of HIV transmission (needles are responsible for approximately 25% of all infections). Moreover, the agencies report, the referrals and counseling that exchangers offer typically lead users to lasting help in kicking addiction.
But while Delaware Governor (Dem.) Ruth Ann Minner quickly signed the bill into law, Massachusetts Governor (Rep.) Mitt Romney vetoed his state’s version. The state legislature soon overrode him. The Massachusetts Governor’s office did not reply to POZ’s repeated requests for comment, but, just before the override, Lt. Governor Kerry Healey told the media, “We have a terrible problem of drug abuse and need to make sure we are not sending the wrong message” by easing needle access. Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, counters, “Syringe exchanges don’t cause drug use. If you actually want to tackle the problem, exchanges give you access to users.”
Despite their widespread legality, exchanges are scarce in many states, and police harassment often discourages potential clients. And even though federal health agencies offer glowing reviews, federal funding for needle exchanges has been illegal since 1989. Kevin Fenton, MD, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention, says the CDC is dedicated to backing state efforts. “NEPs are a way to access [drug users] and provide a link to drug treatment and HIV testing and treatment,” he says. Clear believes that federal backing would not only create more exchanges, but would inspire police acceptance. “The entire history of exchanges is politically motivated,” he says, adding that the lack of public awareness doesn’t help: “NEPs were even written out of this summer’s coverage of the 25th anniversary of AIDS. It’s easier to leave out people who are considered a criminal class.” But they certainly deserve a shot.