HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html House Votes To Allow Sale Of Syringes
Pubdate: Tue, 15 Nov 2005
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2005 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Scott Helman, Globe Staff
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Hepatitis)
Bookmark: (Heroin)


Foes See State Encouraging Use Of Drugs

The Massachusetts House voted yesterday to legalize over-the-counter 
sale of hypodermic needles to curb the spread of HIV and other 
blood-borne infections, potentially setting up a political showdown 
with Governor Mitt Romney over whether the bill will save lives or 
promote drug use.

The controversial measure, which would bring Massachusetts in line 
with 47 other states that allow syringes to be sold without a 
prescription, has long been championed by public health advocates, 
infectious disease doctors, and substance abuse specialists, who 
argue that it would vastly reduce incidence of AIDS, hepatitis C, and 
other diseases spread through the sharing of needles.

"This legislation is long overdue in this Commonwealth," 
Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat and lead 
sponsor of the bill, said on the House floor. "As soon as this 
legislation passes, it will save lives."

But it drew opposition from several-dozen other lawmakers, who said 
the change in state law would essentially encourage people to use 
drugs by making it easy for them to purchase needles at drugstores 
across the state.

The House passed the measure, 115-37, after almost three hours of 
passionate debate. It now goes to the Senate.

Representatives of Senate President Robert E. Travaglini's office 
could not be reached for comment last night.

But Senator Susan C. Fargo, a Lincoln Democrat and cochairwoman of 
the Joint Committee on Public Health, said she's optimistic her 
colleagues in the Senate will approve the bill.

"I don't think people should be afraid of it," she said. "I am 
delighted it's moving forward."

The state Department of Public Health backs the bill, but Romney does 
not, saying he believes that allowing access to needles will 
facilitate drug use by addicts.

Romney spokeswoman Julie Teer declined to say whether the governor 
would veto the measure if it reaches his office.

"The governor has expressed his opposition to the legislation," Teer 
said in an e-mail. "When the bill reaches his desk, he will give it a 
full review."

The bill would allow anyone 18 or older to purchase a syringe from a 
pharmacy without a prescription.

It also would decriminalize possession of a hypodermic needle, which 
is a misdemeanor, and require pharmacists to hand out information 
about treatment programs and about proper use and disposal of 
syringes to needle-buyers.

Supporters cited a litany of statistics in making their case. 
Koutoujian said that more than 39 percent of all people living with 
HIV or AIDS in Massachusetts were infected because they or their 
partners used a dirty needle.

The state has the ninth-highest rate of AIDS infection by needle use 
in the country, he said.

Supporters, who included several House Republicans, acknowledged 
during yesterday's debate that the bill would not solve the problem 
of drug abuse in Massachusetts, which is particularly acute in urban 
neighborhoods such as Charlestown and South Boston where heroin use is high.

But the supporters framed the legislation as one important way to 
address a public health issue that affects not just drug users but 
their partners, family members, and others in their communities.

"I don't know what the answer is to the war on drugs, but I do know 
one thing," said Representative Eugene L. O'Flaherty, a Chelsea 
Democrat. "If one person can be saved by not getting hepatitis or not 
getting AIDS . . . that's a pretty positive message to send."

O'Flaherty, who spoke at length yesterday about drug abuse in 
neighborhoods he represents, was one of several lawmakers who said 
they initially had reservations about legalizing needles sales, but 
had been swayed after seeing firsthand how disease spread by 
intravenous drug use has ravaged lives in their districts.

Representative Brian P. Wallace, a Boston Democrat, explained that 
three years ago he would have thrown someone out of his office who 
suggested the state needed the bill. "Well, we do need it," he said 
yesterday. "The kids who are dying in my community need it."

The bill is also backed by four district attorneys, including Martha 
Coakley of Middlesex County and Daniel F. Conley of Suffolk County, 
who testified at a legislative hearing in the spring.

A representative of Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole 
also testified in support of the bill.

Opponents said yesterday that the House was making a grave misjudgment.

"I cannot believe that the people in Massachusetts are listening to 
this garbage that is being touted at this microphone," said 
Representative Philip Travis, a Rehoboth Democrat, arguing that the 
Legislature is effectively sanctioning drug use. "My God, what does 
this say to the young people?"

An answer was proposed by Representative Elizabeth Poirier.

"I wonder what kind of message we're sending to 18-year-olds and 
older, that it is illegal to use drugs, but it's perfectly all right 
to go in and buy a clean needle with which to do it?" said Poirier, a 
North Attleborough Republican. "I think this is one of the most 
convoluted things I've ever heard."

But supporters say that every state but New Jersey and Delaware has 
passed a similar law and that studies have shown a drop in 
transmission of disease by needles. Connecticut and Rhode Island, for 
example, both saw transmission decline significantly in the years 
after they enacted similar legislation, according to Koutoujian's office.

A few communities in the state, including Boston and Cambridge, have 
adopted needle-exchange programs to combat the spread of disease, but 
supporters of the House bill argue the problem requires a statewide solution.
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