Fearing Measure Will Fail For Second Year, Supporters Of Arizona Needle Exchange Bill Intend To Hold Hearing This Week

By Will Stone
Published: Monday, February 18, 2019 - 11:20am
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2019 - 8:32am
Audio icon Download mp3 (1.7 MB)

With a deadline looming at the Arizona Legislature, supporters of a bill to legalize needle exchanges are planning to hold a hearing this week to keep the measure from dying for a second year in a row. The legislation has lingered in a House committee without a hearing.

Now, Republican Rep. Tony Rivero — the sponsor of House Bill 2148 — intends to use a legislative maneuver, known as a strike-everything amendment, to move the bill to a committee he chairs.

It’s not clear why the House Health and Human Services Committee has yet to schedule a hearing on the bill, but advocates of syringe service programs — also called needle exchanges — told KJZZ a hearing is expected in the House State and International Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

“We know from last year we have a ton of support,” said Haley Coles, executive director of Sonoran Prevention Works, a nonprofit that provides services to IV drug users.

When her organization met with lawmakers earlier this month, she said there was “overwhelming and resounding” support for the measure.

In The Grey

Arizona lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey aimed to curb the state’s crisis of drug overdoses last year by passing the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act, which focused on expanding treatment and combating the overprescribing of painkillers.

It did not include any provision for syringe exchanges, which are illegal under Arizona’s drug paraphernalia laws.

“Without the law explicitly allowing for these programs, they are really hindered from getting funding,” Coles said. “They are very hindered from being able to partner with medical professionals and treatment centers.”

That has kept syringe service programs operating in a legal gray area in Arizona, although law enforcement agencies like the Kingman Police Department openly support the idea.

Maricopa County is one of 48 counties in the U.S. that the federal government has identified as an HIV hotspot and is targeting as part of a Trump administration initiative to end the country’s HIV epidemic.

Arizona surgeon Jeffrey Singer, who’s a fellow at the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, said he plans to testify in support of the measure this week.

“This is not something that is of any great degree of controversy among people in the public health field,” Singer said. “This would seem to be an easy thing to do to help meet that very laudable goal of eradicating the epidemic of HIV.”

Needed Treatment

Singer said these programs also increase the chance an IV drug user will seek out treatment.

“They distribute the opioid overdose antidotes Naloxone to drug users, they get them into treatment and mental health counseling,” Singer said. “They have a proven track record.”

Major health organizations and the U.S. surgeon general support syringe service programs. They reduce the spread of infectious diseases and — contrary to what some believe — do not promote drug use, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In December, public health advocates delivered a letter to Ducey urging him to support legalizing syringe service programs.

“Too many lives are on the line to continue with the status quo,” the letter states.

It was signed by more than 30 organizations, including the Arizona Public Health Association, Arizona Society of Addiction Medicine, Southwest Behavioral Health Services and the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office.

Preliminary numbers from the Arizona Department of Health Services show that more than 2,300 people have died from drug overdoses in the state since mid-June of 2017.

More Stories From KJZZ