Texas Officials Studying Needle-Exchange Program; District Attorney Says People Distributing Needles Do Not Have Immunity
Health officials in Bexar County, Texas, are considering if they should launch the state's first needle-exchange program in an effort to reduce the spread of HIV and other bloodborne diseases, but Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed has said that she will not hesitate to prosecute anyone who distributes needles before the program is approved, the Los Angeles Times reports (Bustillo, Los Angeles Times, 1/28).
The Bexar County Commissioners Court in August 2007 unanimously voted to move forward with a pilot initiative to establish the program. The court voted to approve spending $60,000 for a staff position and planning costs for the program. The program likely will cost more when it begins operations, and organizers plan to seek funding from private groups to offset costs.
The Texas House in May 2007 voted 71-60 to approve a provision in a Medicaid bill (SB 10) that would establish the state's first needle-exchange program in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio. Rep. Ruth McClendon (D), who sponsored the provision, initially tried to add an amendment that would have created a statewide program. However, the program was limited to the San Antonio area after the broader program failed to gain support in the House. Following the vote from the County Commissioner's Court, Reed recently said that the law authorizing the exchange program is faulty (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 8/20/07). The Texas attorney general is reviewing the situation, according to the Times.
Texas is the only state nationwide that does not have a needle-exchange program, the Times reports. Reed, who is opposed to the initiative, said that people who distribute needles before the program is approved do not have "any kind of criminal immunity." San Antonio police earlier this month arrested three individuals from the Bexar Area Harm Reduction Coalition for distributing needles to injection drug users and commercial sex workers, the Times reports (Los Angeles Times, 1/28).
The recent arrests make a "mockery of clear thinking in this state when it comes to containing infectious disease among" IDUs, a Houston Chronicle editorial says, adding that Reed is doing "her best to thwart" the initiative. The Texas Legislature should "revisit this issue in the next legislative session," the Chronicle says. Texas "needs a fully funded, statewide needle-exchange program run by local public health officials," the editorial says, adding that the state should "protec[t]" people who provide clean needles from "overly aggressive prosecutors" (Houston Chronicle, 1/28).