By Taylor Sisk
The state House of Representatives passed a bill Monday designed to protect law-enforcement officers from being stuck by a syringe during an arrest. The bill now moves to the Senate.
House Bill 850 stipulates that a person who alerts an officer of the presence of a hypodermic needle or other sharp object prior to a search will not be charged for possession of the sharp object, even if it’s drug paraphernalia.
“This is a law-enforcement safety bill designed to reduce the number of officers that get needlesticks and are exposed to a communicable disease,” said co-sponsor Rep. Allen McNeill (R-Asheboro).
McNeill said the bill is supported by the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, and added that 70 percent of officers say the “threat of being stuck by a needle is of grave concern to them.”
Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-High Point) took issue with creating what he perceives as unwarranted inconsistencies in drug laws.
“What this bill says is that if you shoot heroin up or you use a needle, we’re going to give you an out,” Brandon said, “but if you just do pot and you have a bowl in your car, then you still get the charge.”
McNeill replied that the sole purpose of the bill is to protect law-enforcement officers.
“I can assure you,” he said, “I’m a retired law-enforcement officer, and I have no time for giving breaks to criminals.”
The N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition has lobbied for the bill as a means of reducing the incidence of exposure to blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.
According to research reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, nearly 30 percent of law-enforcement officers in Rhode Island had been stuck by a needle at least once in their careers.
The Harm Reduction Coalition reports that in states in which syringes have been decriminalized, needlesticks have been reduced by as much as two-thirds.
Further harm reduction
House Bill 850 is the second piece of legislation aimed at drug-related harm reduction taken up by the General Assembly this session.
Earlier this month, Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law what’s known as 911 Good Samaritan legislation. The law provides limited immunity from prosecution for certain drug-related offenses for those who fear they may be overdosing and anyone who seeks medical assistance for someone else they believe to be overdosing.
That law also provides immunity from civil or criminal liability for anyone who prescribes, dispenses or distributes a drug called naloxone. Administered with an inhaler, naloxone blocks the effects of opiates and helps restore normal breathing.
“There was bipartisan support for this bill because everyone recognizes that it’s about saving lives and giving people a second chance to get into treatment,” said bill co-sponsor Sen. Austin Allran (R-Hickory).
According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, more than 1,100 people in North Carolina died of a drug overdose last year, most from prescription drugs, including opioid painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin and morphine.
Drug poisoning has now surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S.