Amid drug crisis, needle exchanges get strong endorsement from N.H. House

Monitor staff
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
The House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to pass a bill legalizing needle exchanges in New Hampshire, despite concerns that the legislation could curb law enforcement’s ability to go after drug dealers.

New Hampshire is the only state in New England without a needle exchange. The programs give intravenous drug users access to free, sterile syringes and dispose of their used ones.

As the state faces an opioid epidemic that claimed more than 400 lives last year, advocates say the programs are critical to preventing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C among drug users, limiting the number of dirty needles discarded in public places.

“If we provide more access to clean syringes, we can improve public safety,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Hannon, a Lee Republican.

The legislation passed 272-86, and it will now go to the Republican-led Senate.

The bill seeks to legalize needle exchanges by allowing more people and organizations to dispense clean needles, and by decriminalizing the possession of syringes that contain a residual amount of drugs, so users can bring their dirty needles to an exchange without fear of arrest.

The bill does not set up a state-authorized needle exchange or establish regulatory guidelines for such programs.

Opponents said the bill’s approach could have unintended consequences. Law enforcement officials have said a blanket decriminalization of dirty needles could limit them from using such paraphernalia as evidence while investigating and prosecuting drug crimes.

“I would prefer to see us do something that creates a needle exchange program, or at least allows the state to set guidelines,” said Rep. John Tholl, a Whitefield Republican. “What it does now is gives a free pass to everybody who wants to have dirty needles.”

The bill will now go to a Senate committee for review, and advocates say they hope the chamber will improve the measure.

“If people are concerned, I am willing to work with those in trying to come with some consensus in the Senate,” Hannon said.

Conversion therapy ban

The Republican-led House resoundingly approved a bill that would ban conversion therapy in New Hampshire, a practice that seeks to change the sexual orientation of gay, lesbian and transgender minors. 

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Eric Schleien, said the therapy can lead to increased rates of depression, suicide and substance abuse among youth. The American Psychological Association and other health organizations, have discredited the effectiveness of conversion therapy.

“These practices are based on the false claim that being lesbian, gay, transexual or bisexual is a mental illness that needs to be fixed and cured,” said Schleien, a Hudson Republican. “New Hampshire has a responsibility to protect all children form these dangerous practices.”

The bill, HB 1661, passed 229-99 after a lengthy debate. Some Republican opponents argued the proposal improperly regulates what therapists can talk about with patients and limits parental rights.

“We are telling practitioners in the mental health industry what they can or cannot do,” said Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican. “My concern is this starts down this slippery slope of what mental health providers can do.”

Conversion therapy techniques can include administering electric shocks, inducing nausea while showing a patient homoerotic images or using shame to induce aversion to same-sex attractions, according to the APA.

The bill would prohibit counselors licensed by the state from engaging in conversion therapy with minors, and subject any who do to discipline by the licensing authority.

The proposal also makes it illegal for people to advertise conversation therapy for a fee and it bars state money from being used to fund the practice. 

Sponsors say the proposal would not pertain to pastors or other religious leaders. 

The bill will now go to the Republican-led Senate. 

 Only four other states, and the District of Columbia, ban conversion therapy, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank focused on LGBT issues. President Obama last year called for an end to conversion therapy.

Veto of civil forfeiture bill vowed

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan said she would veto a bill the House passed Wednesday that would send money from a drug investigation fund to the state’s coffers.

The bill, HB 636, would rework the state’s civil asset forfeiture law, which allows the government to seize private property that may be connected to a crime. Currently, a portion of the proceeds from those seizures is sent to local law enforcement agencies for drug enforcement and prevention efforts.

The bill the House approved Wednesday would divert that money to the state’s general fund starting in 2017. The bill now goes to the Senate for review. 

Supporters say civil forfeiture incentivizes police seizures, and moving the money to the state’s control, instead of law enforcement, will take away a conflict of interest. 

But Hassan disagrees, saying now is not the time to take resources away from law enforcement fighting the state’s drug problem. 

“Drug forfeiture funds support the Attorney General’s Drug Task Force and are critical to local law enforcement efforts as they work to remove illicit drugs from our streets and arrest dealers,” she said in a statement.  “I will veto it if it reaches my desk.”

Test opt-outs okayed

As students across New Hampshire prepare to take statewide assessments, the House voted to let parents opt their children out from those tests. 

The bill, HB 1338, passed the House 204-151. It would ensure parents who exempt children from the statewide assessments won’t be penalized. The bill now goes to the Senate. Hassan vetoed a similar measure last year.

Students in New Hampshire between grades three and eight take the smarter balanced test, a statewide assessment based on the common core standards. Students in 11th grade take the SAT. 

The bill’s supporters said parents should have control over their child’s education, but opponents said the bill sends a bad message and could jeopardize federal funding. 

New Hampshire law doesn’t currently have an opt-out option for students who take the statewide assessment.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307, or on Twitter @amorrisNH.)

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