Texas Senate Committee Approves Bill To Protect Needle-Exchange Programs
The Texas Senate's Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday voted 5-1 to approve a bill (S.B. 188) that would protect needle-exchange programs run by local health departments, the AP/Houston Chronicle reports. Under the legislation, district attorneys would be prohibited from prosecuting state-approved health programs that allow for needle exchanges. The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
According to state Sen. Robert Deuell (R), the bill's sponsor, evidence from other states with needle-exchange programs shows that the programs do not contribute to increased drug use. "There has been much critical evidence to show that it decreases HIV and hepatitis in those communities," he said, adding, "Which alleviates a lot of human suffering, but it also saves states money because the people who contract HIV and hepatitis, more often than not, end up having state programs or services."
Some law enforcement and health officials on Tuesday in written and vocal support said that the bill would prevent the spread of diseases among injection drug users and their families, as well as children and others who find and could be stuck by used needles. Retired Bexar County Constable Jimmy Wilborn said that the bill would help lower the risk of police officers contracting diseases from used needles. "My partners were stuck with needles when we were executing search warrants," he said, adding, "As a constable in Precinct 2, two of my people were stuck with needles. The fact of the matter is, if these people are distributing these needles, it's going to be better for the police officers because of one reason -- because they are going to be exchanging these things."
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, 100 new HIV cases could be prevented in the first year of a needle-exchange program. Texas is the only state that does not permit needle exchanges of any kind (Stone, AP/Houston Chronicle, 3/3). In 2007, the Texas Legislature authorized Bexar County to establish a pilot needle-exchange program. State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D) 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) last 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, 12/11/08).