North Carolina could become the 33rd state allowing syringe and needle exchange programs in an effort to slow the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C.
By Rose Hoban
Advocates often decry the process known on Jones Street as “gut and amend,” where lawmakers strip the language out of a bill and use the shell of the legislation to drop in new statutory language. Then the bill goes straight to the floor of the House or Senate for an up or down vote.
Sometimes, health-care advocates use that technique to their advantage, and that happened this week with a measure to legalize syringe and needle exchange programs in North Carolina.
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary I Committee approved adding the needle and syringe language to a bill about public access to police dashboard and body cameras.
The bill went from committee to the Senate floor where it passed unanimously on Wednesday. Then it went across the hall to the House where the legislature’s only physician, Rep. Greg Murphy (R-Greenville), introduced the bill.
“As far as its being an epidemiology and health prevention tool, it’s been shown in communities where needle exchange is done that the rate of HIV transmission and the rate of hepatitis C transmission … is cut,” Murphy said.
The reaction in the House wasn’t all positive. Rep. Larry Pittman got up to oppose the bill based on the addition of the needle exchange language.
“I can’t get past the notion that somebody may come in and get a clean needle and take it out, and it was clean, until they used it and then they shared it with somebody else,” he told the House.
Pittman said that he could not vote for the bill, even though he liked the language on police dashboard cameras. Nonetheless, the bill passed 89-19 and goes to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature.
“North Carolina Harm Reduction applauds the NC general assembly for passing this life-saving legislation,” wrote Robert Childs, head of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, in an email.
“Syringe exchange programs are proven to reduce needle sticks to law enforcement by 66 percent and reduce crime, HIV and viral hepatitis C in the community,” he said. “They are also great at connecting drug users to drug treatment/detox and provide access to the overdose reversal drug Naloxone to the most at-risk populations.”
Childs said that if McCrory signs the bill, his organization plans to launch a needle exchange program in Wilmington, which has emerged as an epicenter of the heroin epidemic, as well as in programs in Brunswick County, Fayetteville, the Triangle and the Triad.
“These people come in and they’re a captured audience, and so they are able to access and be introduced more to drug treatment,” Murphy said. “So it’s altogether a good thing to do.”
Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw) made the point that there are 36,300 HIV-positive people in North Carolina, and that treatment for HIV costs about $2,000 per month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 percent of the men and about 19 percent of the women with the disease in North Carolina contracted it through injection drug use.
“It’s been a stigma that once you do a needle exchange program, you’re condoning the illegal use of drugs,” Tucker said. “That’s been the political pitfall, but the reality of the street is we have so many people that are using drugs now.”
He also gave a shoutout to Sen. Stan Bingham, who championed the bill for years. Bingham, who is retiring after 16 years, left Raleigh quickly after the Senate recessed.
“The fact that he’s retiring and this has been one of his babies,” he said. “It’s kinda been his coup de grace to leave.”