Pubdate: Fri, 09 Apr 2004
Source: Sentinel And Enterprise, The (MA)
Copyright: 2004 MediaNews Group, Inc. and Mid-States Newspapers, Inc.
Author: Jennifer Fenn
Bookmark: (Harm Reduction)
Bookmark: (Heroin Maintenance)


BOSTON -- In an effort to curtail the spread of diseases through injection
drug use, some lawmakers are pushing a controversial bill that would allow
pharmacies to sell hypodermic needles without a prescription.

As heroin use continues to rise in Massachusetts, supporters of the bill say
it's a step Massachusetts must take to help stop the spread of HIV, AIDS and
Hepatitis C -- diseases commonly spread through the shared use of dirty

Rep. Emile Goguen, D-Fitchburg, said he's torn over the issue. On one hand,
Goguen said he doesn't want drug users anywhere near Fitchburg -- including
city drug stores.

On the other hand, he understands the need to stop the spread of diseases
associated with dirty hypodermic needles.

"If you have (needles) available it's just encouraging them to do
something," Goguen said. "But you're not going to stop them from using."

Similar versions of the bill have been filed in the past but have failed to
move forward. Walsh said he is hopeful this year because the Legislature's
Health Care Committee signed off on the bill two weeks ago and it has the
backing of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

Massachusetts is one of just of four states that does not allow
over-the-counter sales of needles. The other states are California, Delaware
and New Jersey.

Currently it is illegal in Massachusetts to purchase or possess a syringe
without a prescription from a doctor or unless the person participates in
one of the state-approved needle exchange programs in Boston, Provincetown,
Northampton or Cambridge, said Roseanne Pawelec, a spokeswoman for the
Department of Public Health.

"The sad thing is we have to talk about this legislation," said Rep. Martin
Walsh, D-Dorchester, the bill's sponsor. "It's not something I want to be
advocating for but people are dying on the streets because of intravenous
drug use. It's a very difficult issue."

Public health officials say clean needles will help stop the spread of
blood-borne diseases.

According to the Department of Public Health, 31 percent of Massachusetts
residents with HIV or AIDS contracted the disease through injection drug

"You need to keep people healthy to stop this cycle of transmission of AIDS
and Hepatitis and that's one way to do it," said Pawelec.

John Auerbach, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission,
said studies have shown that needle exchange programs and allowing the sale
of hypodermic needles help reduce the exposure of diseases.

Auerbach cited statistics from Connecticut, which showed a dramatic decrease
in the percentage of drug users who shared needles after the state allowed
the sale of syringes at pharmacies.

"We know from data that if people aren't sharing, the likelihood of
transmitting HIV is greatly reduced," Auerbach said.

Sen. Robert O'Leary, D-Barnstable, the Senate sponsor of the legislation,
said he doesn't know of any evidence linking easier access to needles with
increased drug use. O'Leary said despite the state's laws prohibiting the
sale of syringes, Massachusetts has the highest per-capita rate of heroin
use in the nation.

O'Leary said if addicts need drugs, not having access to a clean needle
won't stop them, arguing that if the state banned corkscrews, alcoholics
would still find a way to drink.

"It's not a criminal justice issue, it's a public health issue," O'Leary
said. "I don't think deregulating the sale of needles will do away with the
sharing of needles, but it will reduce it. Anything we can do to reduce the
transmission is the right thing to do."

Beyond the public health issue, O'Leary said the cost of treating each
patient infected with HIV costs $120,000 a year. 
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