A bill has been passed in the Missouri House of Representatives regarding the distribution of clean syringes by health organizations.
House Bill 168 would exempt healthcare entities registered with the Department of Health and Senior Services, that distribute hypodermic needles or syringes, from the crime of unlawful delivery of drug paraphernalia.
Introduced in January by Rep. Holly Rehder, D-Sikeston, and co-sponsored by Rep. Martha Stevens, D-Boone County, the bill passed the House last week with more than a three-quarters majority.
Stevens said the bill would essentially decriminalize needle exchange programs allowing health departments to distribute hypodermic needles. The co-sponsor went on to say that this bill, and similar ones, have been filed in response to the opioid epidemic.
“It’s considered a harm-reduction policy. The real goal is to reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.”
Thirty-five other states have allowed for similar programming and there’s good evidence of needle exchange programs acting as an effective point of entry for treatment, according to Stevens.
“Research shows that individuals who access these programs are five times more likely to seek treatment … I think that displays why this is really good evidence-based public health policy. I’m proud to co-sponsor this bill and have introduced similar bills myself.”
In late 2016, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a study highlighting counties in the United States that were at the greatest risk for the spread of HIV. In that study, 13 of the 220 counties at greatest risk were in Missouri with 10 in 100,000 people in state infected, according to the CDC website.
Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, ultimately voted in favor of the bill but had some reservations.
“That was a tough vote for me. I get that [the bill] is helping people, My only hope is that we’re not empowering people to think it’s OK to continue that lifestyle or the using of the drugs,” he explained. “I know what results in people sharing needles at the same time … I’ll be real honest, I just as easily could have voted no.
“It’s just one of those tough votes, I talked with [other Representatives] about it but in the end, I listened to the people talking about public safety and public health, and if they’re going to do it anyway… It wasn’t an easy vote but that’s why we’re elected-to make the best decision we can.”
Rep. Elaine Gannon, R-De Soto, voted in favor of the bill as well.
“With 13 counties in Missouri at risk for HIV outbreaks, the syringe access program is the only thing statistically proven to slow down the spread of the disease,” she said.
Gannon continued saying,”It is my understanding that people who access these programs are five times more likely to get into treatment.
“If people are using these exchange programs and trying to get help at the same time then they are aware that they need help … hopefully this will be a way to get the people who need help into the treatment they need sooner.”
Also voting in favor of the bill was Rep. Chris Dinkins, R-Annapolis.
Among those voting against the bill was Rep. Dale Wright, R-Farmington.
“I see both sides. I just have an issue with handing out needles to drug addicts … I think there are better ways to deal with the issue like treatment programs,” Wright said. “But again, I understand both sides and I’m not condemning anyone, but I just didn’t feel like that was something I wanted to vote yes on.”
Ultimately, when the bill was put to a vote, it was passed with 124 representatives voting in favor of the legislation and 27 opposed. The bill was then turned over to the Senate on April 8 and put to First Read before being referred to the Senate Health and Pensions Committee where it currently resides.
The proposed effective date for this legislation is Aug. 28. However, the bill must first pass the Senate and be signed into law by the governor.
Bobby Radford is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3628, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.