Senate says no to needle exchange

Monitor staff
Published: 5/6/2016 12:14:19 AM

The state Senate voted Thursday not to legalize needle exchanges in New Hampshire, and instead opted to study the issue over the summer and take action next year. 

“There are a lot of unanswered questions here,” said Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican. “There is no one size fits all solution.”

The proposal to create a 20-member study commission passed on a voice vote. And lawmakers pledged to file a bill next year paving the way for the exchange programs, which give intravenous drug users access to free, sterile syringes and dispose of their used ones.

As the state faces a growing opioid epidemic, advocates say the programs are critical to prevent the spread of hepatitis C and HIV among drug users and limit the number of dirty needles discarded in public places. 

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 legally operate here, officials say, because state statute criminalizes possession of used syringes and only allows pharmacies to dispense clean ones. 

While many senators said the state should allow a needle exchange, they said the House-passed proposal legalizing them was not ready for prime-time. 

The lower chamber passed legislation that decriminalized possession of all dirty needles, but didn’t set up any state guidelines or parameters for needle exchanges. Opponents said the approach was too broad and could limit law enforcement’s ability to investigate and prosecute drug crimes.

Republican Rep. Joe Hannon, who sponsored the bill, said Thursday the Senate proposal makes progress.

“This was the best alternative,” he said. “It’s not exactly what I wanted, but it’s definitely moving in the right direction.”

The Senate-approved study commission must get approval from the House, but Hannon said he won’t fight it there.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan “appreciates the efforts of all the stakeholders on this legislation, and she would sign the bill creating a commission if it reaches her desk,” spokesman William Hinkle said.

The 20-member commission will include lawmakers, public health officials, law enforcement, members of the public and other advocates. It will study the feasibility of implementing needle exchanges in New Hampshire and look at other states’ models and review any other relevant issues.

Sen. Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat, recommended the commission review why people are prosecuted on felony drug possession charges for having trace amounts of drugs in a syringe. Manchester Sen. Lou D’Allesandro asked the commission to review rules around syinge clean-up, which is typically done by paramedics or volunteers. He noted people who are doing good work to dispose of dirty syringes are currently breaking the law. “They can go to jail, which is crazy,” he said.

Manchester public health officials said they picked up more than 500 dirty needles across the city last year.

“It’s pretty much steady,” Timothy Soucy, director of the Manchester Health Department, said recently. “We’re still picking up needles on a regular basis.”

Some organizations in the state have expressed interest in launching needle exchange programs here. One, Recover Together, currently provides substance abuse treatment in Manchester, Keene, Nashua, Claremont and Lebanon. CEO Jeff DeFlavio said in December the organization planned to launch a needle exchange pilot program in one location in 2016, before expanding the initiative statewide. He didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday.

While the state isn’t experiencing an HIV outbreak officials say, it’s hard to tell whether hepatitis C is spreading among drug users because New Hampshire is one of a few states nationally that don’t track the disease.

As the state’s drug crisis continues, public health officials have said they plan to start tracking new cases of hepatitis C so they can identify outbreaks, implement effective prevention measures and connect people who become infected with care and treatment.

The needle exchange commission passed by the Senate would be dissolved by November, and any bill would be filed next session after the 2016 election.

“Someone will file it,” Hannon said. “If I am not reelected, someone else will take the torch.”

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




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