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Needle Exchange Banned in 26 States Despite Health and Financial Benefits

While the evidence proves that needle exchange programs work, places like the South and Midwest maintain moral objections to harm reduction. Unsurprisingly, these regions have the highest rates of HIV in the country.

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By Paul Gaita

03/20/14

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Despite a wealth of evidence about the positive impact of needle exchanges, where intravenous drug users can receive a clean syringe by turning in a used one, the programs remain illegal in 26 states across America.

Studies by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Johns Hopkins University, and the California Department of Public Health have all indicated that needle exchange programs do not lead to an increase in drug use, and have been cited for helping to reduce the rate of HIV and spurring some users to seek out treatment. Needle exchanges could also help to reduce the staggering burden placed upon taxpayers to fund health care programs.

But moral issues remain at the heart of opposition to needle exchange programs across the South and Midwest, where supplying drug users with clean needles is seen as supporting a dangerous habit. Unfortunately, these regions also have the highest rate of individuals living with HIV in the United States, as well as an explosion of hepatitis infections in both rural and urban areas, both of which could be effectively curbed by harm reduction efforts like needle exchange programs, according to advocates.

Twenty-four states have amended their laws regarding the possession of drug paraphernalia – which remains a crime to sell or possess with the intent of using for drug consumption – to allow community groups to run needle exchange programs in plain sight without fear of intervention from the law. The skyrocketing increase in both heroin use and health issues related to needle drugs like hepatitis have spurred some lawmakers to change or reverse their state’s negative stance on needle exchange.

But their efforts have so far met with only mixed success: HB 92 in Ohio and CS/SB 408 in Florida, which would have established needle exchange programs in those states, were both stalled by state legislature, while North Carolina was able to pass HB 850 which only partially decriminalized syringes. Changes on the federal level also remain in stalemate due to a ban on funding syringe exchange programs set in place during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1988, though it was briefly lifted from 2009 to 2011.

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