Advocates Optimistic About Needle-Exchange Program Approval in Bexar County, Texas
Advocates in Bexar County, Texas, on Tuesday said they are optimistic that the next state legislative session would pass a bill authorizing local health departments to operate needle-exchange programs aimed at reducing the spread of HIV and other bloodborne diseases, the San Antonio Express-News reports. Texas State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D) and Sens. Leticia Van de Putte (D) and Robert Deuell (R) plan to reintroduce bills similar to legislation introduced in previous sessions in support of needle-exchange programs.
William Martin, senior fellow for drug policy at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, said he believes there is "a good chance" that a reintroduced needle-exchange bill "will succeed." Martin, who has studied and testified in support of exchange programs during the past two legislative sessions, said that providing injection drug users "with access to sterile syringes allows us to be responsible, prudent and compassionate," adding, "[T]hese are good criteria for public policy." Charlene Doria-Ortiz, community health coordinator for Bexar County, said local officials are prepared to implement a needle-exchange program if the new bill passes, because health workers last year began organizing a pilot exchange program before a legal challenge halted their efforts (Finley, San Antonio Express-News, 12/10).
In 2007, the state Legislature authorized Bexar County to establish a pilot needle-exchange program. McClendon said lawmakers hoped to use the pilot program to consider passing a statewide program during the 2009 legislative session. However, District Attorney Susan Reed in August 2007 challenged the legislation, saying that anyone in possession of drug paraphernalia would be breaking the law, regardless of their intentions. State Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) earlier this year backed Reed, saying people who possess drug paraphernalia could be prosecuted because the law does not specifically exempt them. Abbott's opinion meant that Bexar County officials did not move forward with the planned needle-exchange program, which would have been the first in Texas (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 7/23).
Police also arrested three volunteers from the Bexar Area Harm Reduction Coalition who had been openly operating an exchanging program. Neel Lane, an attorney who represents the coalition, said the arrests brought national attention to needle-exchange programs and "provided support for people already doing heroic work" (San Antonio Express-News, 12/10).