Should Syringes Be Decriminalized?

By Chrisanne Grise 10/31/12

Advocates argue that lifting laws against syringes would make both addicts and police officers safer.

Syringes are being hotly debated in NC.
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Harm reduction advocates in North Carolina are currently pushing for a bill on syringe decriminalization to be introduced to the state legislature. Currently, syringes that are used for (or intended to be used for) the injection of illicit drugs are illegal. Naturally, this doesn't actually stop IV drug use—but it does encourage addicts to re-use or share contaminated needles. Advocates believe that decriminalizing syringes would make it easier for people to access clean needles, and also encourage honesty with law enforcement. “There is a lot of fear in being a law enforcement officer,” explains Ronald Martin, a retired police officer with over 20 years' experience. “There is fear of injury, getting hurt, being killed, so sometimes dialogue can make a huge difference…If a drug user can openly admit he is carrying a syringe, the officer has one less thing to worry about.” 

Martin now travels with staff from the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition to conduct officer safety trainings about handling syringes or other potentially contaminated paraphernalia. He also uses the opportunity to speak about decriminalizing syringes. While some worry about changing the law, surveys show that about 60%-70% of officers are supportive, feeling the measure would increase safety for everyone. “Some cops are resistant to [syringe decriminalization] because they haven’t been exposed to the idea before,” says Martin. “You just have to give them the information, say ‘Hey, one out of three of you will be stuck by a needle. If you could reduce that possibility, would it make sense to do it?’ The benefits are clear if cops have the right information.” There's evidence to back his words: in New Mexico, where syringes are partially decriminalized, needle-sticks to law enforcement have dropped by 66%. Ten states currently exempt some or all syringes from their drug paraphernalia laws, including New York, Oregon and Illinois. “I can’t see anything about [syringe decriminalization] that would make [the drug situation] worse,” says Martin. “It’s a plus for law enforcement safety, community safety, and it minimizes some of the fears cops are dealing with."

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Chrisanne Grise is a multimedia journalist specializing in health/fitness, lifestyle, travel, bridal, and music. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications such as Martha Stewart Weddings, Parents, FitnessMagazine, Fisher Price, Bridal Guide, Scholastic's Choices,,, and more. She is the Senior Editor at The New York Times Upfront. Follow her on Linkedin and Twitter.