California State Legislators Expected To Reintroduce Bill To Legalize Over-the-Counter Hypodermic Needle Sales
California state legislators are soon expected to reintroduce a bill that would allow pharmacies across the state to sell hypodermic needles over-the-counter, a move some health officials believe will curb the spread of HIV and other bloodborne disease among injection drug users, the Los Angeles Times reports (Costello, Los Angeles Times, 1/12). Former California Gov. Gray Davis (D) in October 2003 vetoed a similar bill (SB 774), which would have allowed pharmacies to sell up to 30 hypodermic syringes to an adult without a prescription. The measure, sponsored by Sen. John Vasconcellos (D), aimed to reduce the incidence of needle sharing among drug users, which contributes to the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases. California law currently requires a prescription to purchase syringes, except when used to inject adrenaline or insulin (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 10/14/03).
Although a 1999 law allows local governments to set up needle-exchange programs, fewer than 25% of counties have acted to initiate programs, making some health officials concerned that HIV and hepatitis rates among injection drug users will continue to climb, the Times reports. According to the state Office of AIDS, 14 cities and counties in the state have set up legal needle-exchange programs (Los Angeles Times, 1/12). However, some locally approved needle-exchange programs in California are facing routine interference from police, according to a Human Rights Watch report released in September 2003 (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 9/10/03). The "majority" of California municipalities do not have legal needle-exchange programs and have to "rely on a patchwork of illegal underground exchanges," according to the Times. Over the last 10 years, "several dozen" volunteers at illegal needle exchanges have been arrested, but most were not convicted because they were able to convince judges and juries that they "had no choice but to break the law," according to the Times. However, some judges are now ruling that illegal needle-exchange volunteers can no longer use such a defense.
Ricky Blumenthal, a health researcher at RAND Corp., said, "I hope we don't wait until the cow has left the barn and rates climb back up dramatically among addicts to realize that what we have now isn't working." Many law enforcement agencies "vehemently" oppose allowing over-the-counter hypodermic needle sales, saying that the current policy of allowing individual municipalities to operate needle exchanges is "sufficient," according to the Times. John Lovell, a lobbyist who represents the California Narcotic Officers' Association, said that allowing needles to be sold over-the-counter "would lead to an unregulated, unfettered mess that we wouldn't be able to change once it starts" (Los Angeles Times, 1/12).