N.H. lawmakers deadlocked over proposed needle exchange program

Monitor staff
Thursday, March 17, 2016
A House committee is deadlocked over whether the Republican-controlled chamber should pass a bill legalizing needle exchanges, which aim to reduce the transmission of infectious diseases among drug users. 

While nearly all members of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee said they support needle exchanges, the big divide came over the bill’s key provision to decriminalize possession of certain dirty needles. Some feared the legislation could have unintended consequences by limiting law enforcement’s ability to arrest and prosecute drug dealers.

As New Hampshire faces a growing opioid epidemic, some lawmakers point to syringe exchanges as part of the solution. The programs give intravenous drug users access to free, sterile syringes and dispose of their used ones. And advocates say needle exchanges help prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C among drug users, limit the number of dirty needles disposed in public places and can help direct people to treatment programs.

New Hampshire is the only state in New England that doesn’t have a needle exchange, according to the Foundation for AIDS Research. The programs can’t operate here, officials say, because state law criminalizes possession of used syringes and only allows pharmacies to dispense clean ones. 

The bill up for debate this year, sponsored by Republican Rep. Joe Hannon, would reverse that by decriminalizing the possession of used needles that contain a residual amount of drugs, and allowing more people and organizations to dispense clean syringes. 

While the legislation doesn’t set up a state-sanctioned needle exchange, it removes legal barriers that prevent private or other health care organizations from opening them.

During a lengthy House hearing on the bill Tuesday, supporters said the changes would pave the way for needle exchanges and reduce fear among drug users that they will be arrested for turning in dirty syringes. But some bill opponents said a blanket decriminalization of dirty needles could restrict law enforcement’s efforts to investigate and prosecute drug crimes. 

“It is going to interfere with the apprehension of the dealers,” said committee Chairman John Tholl, a Whitefield Republican. “Because if you come across somebody who has a needle that has some residue in it, and it’s not against the law, there’s not much you can do.”

Ultimately the committee voted 7-7 on the bill, meaning the proposal will come to the House floor without any recommendation on whether the chamber should pass or kill it.

Supporters said the bill’s benefits outweigh any costs and the state needs to take action a year after more than 420 people died from drug overdoses.

“If we do this, people are going to be healthier because they are not going to be using as many used needles,” said Rep. John Burt, a Goffstown Republican. 

Several groups have said they hope to launch needle exchanges in the state, but are waiting on the bill that will come up for a House vote next week. If it passes, it would go to the Republican-led Senate.

Recover Together, a New Hampshire treatment provider, had planned to launch a pilot program this year. Jason Lucey, a nurse practitioner with Seacoast Emergency Physicians, said Tuesday his colleagues have talked about starting a needle exchange. 

“We can’t wait another few years for needle exchanges to go through the legislative process,” Lucey said. “We need them now, we need them yesterday.”

The Lebanon-based HIV/HCV Resource Center runs a syringe exchange program, but it operates across the border in White River Junction, Vt., where such programs are legal. Roughly one-third of the needle exchange’s clients are New Hampshire residents.

Some lawmakers questioned why New Hampshire couldn’t model its own bill off a Vermont statute, which decriminalizes dirty needles only when they are “distributed or possessed as part of an organized community-based needle exchange program.” 

But Hannon said that model doesn’t make sense for New Hampshire. 

“If it’s a state exchange, it doesn’t get everywhere,” said Hannon, of Lee. “And we’re a rural area. . . . We have to meet them where they are.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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