By Taylor Sisk
It’s been a productive legislative session for those who advocate for safer interactions between someone who has used drugs and law-enforcement officers.
The state Senate unanimously passed a bill on Wednesday that aims to protect officers from being stuck by a syringe during an arrest. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives last month and now must receive Gov. Pat McCrory’s approval before becoming law.
If enacted, the law would protect a person who alerts an officer of the presence of a hypodermic needle or other sharp object prior to a search. That person would not be charged for possession of the object, even if it’s drug paraphernalia.
This was the second bill lobbied for by the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition that’s been passed this session. In May, McCrory signed into law the Good Samaritan/Naloxone Access bill, the objective of which is to reduce drug-overdose fatalities.
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.
The 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 reverses the effects of opiates and helps restore normal breathing.
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.
Tessie Castillo, the Harm Reduction Coalition’s communications and advocacy coordinator, attributes success in passing these bills to building strong coalitions, including law enforcement, families affected by drug overdose or drug-related imprisonment and the medical and public-health communities.
“Also, I think we found good sponsors in the legislature,” she said.
“For the Good Samaritan bill,” Castillo said, “we found them through the Child Fatality Task Force. All the legislators there are interested in reducing child mortality, and this was the only bill that will reduce child mortality for teenagers.
Senators Stan Bingham (R-Denton) and Austin Allran (R-Hickory), both members of the Child Fatality Task Force, were co-sponsors of the bill.
(The biennial budget now being finalized by the House of Representatives originally proposed abolishing the Child Fatality Task Force, but Republican leaders said yesterday they’ll discuss its future in committee.)
In lobbying for the syringe-decriminalization bill, the Harm Reduction Coalition approached legislators with law-enforcement backgrounds, presenting the bill as a means of reducing the incidence of exposure to blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.
“We went to them and said, ‘We train law enforcement, needlesticks are a huge problem, we have this survey that North Carolina law enforcement really wants some kind of syringe decriminalization,’ and we were able to get those legislators on board.”
Two sponsors of the bill, Rep. John Faircloth (R-High Point) and Rep. Allen McNeill (R-Asheboro), are former law-enforcement officers, and the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association supported the bill.
The coalition reports that in states in which syringes have been decriminalized, needlesticks have been reduced by as much as two-thirds.
The coalition will now monitor how effective the law is in protecting law enforcement from needlesticks and consider taking it a step further next year, perhaps to include additional paraphernalia.
Castillo said they’ll also look at advocating for an expansion of the overdose-prevention law, to include broader immunity.
The coalition is now advocating to keep state-operated alcohol and drug-abuse treatment centers open. The Senate’s budget proposes closing them, allocating some of the money saved to community-based and residential treatment services.
“Drug-abuse treatment is something that’s obviously really integral to overdose prevention,” Castillo said.
The coalition originally supported a more comprehensive syringe bill, and wasn’t optimistic of getting it passed. But after talking with legislators, they made the compromises necessary to see a bipartisan bill through.
“You’ve got to go step by step in North Carolina,” Castillo said, “and that’s what we’re doing.”