The Missouri House on Tuesday advanced a bill to make it legal for organizations to provide free needles to drug users, a change backers said could prevent the spread of disease and help combat the opioid epidemic.
Some groups now pass out clean syringes to intravenous drug users with the goal of preventing the spread of hepatitis C and HIV through dirty needles, Republican Rep. Holly Rehder, the bill's sponsor, said. But state law currently bans possessing drug paraphernalia, which puts the needle exchanges in murky legal waters.
Rehder's bill, which won initial approval in a voice vote Tuesday, would change that. It needs another vote to head to the Senate.
Rehder said that along with cutting back on disease outbreaks caused by sharing used syringes, the programs could help build relationships between the health professionals handing out the needles and drug abusers, hopefully leading more to get drug treatment.
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"This is just one tool that has been proven to reduce drug use, and also to protect our communities from spreading diseases," Rehder said.
The programs have been shown to decrease needle sharing. The Centers for Disease Control said in a report released in 2016 that only about 1 in 10 people who used exchanges shared syringes, compared with more than 40 percent who didn't use the programs. It's difficult to link them directly to decreased rates of blood-borne illnesses because data aren't typically collected in controlled clinical trials.
Several Indiana counties launched needle exchanges following a 2015 HIV outbreak in a southern Indiana county, but some counties have since pulled back amid concerns that the programs provide illegal paraphernalia to intravenous drug users.
There are skeptics in the Missouri Legislature, too.
Republican Rep. Shane Roden, a paramedic and firefighter, questioned how effective the programs are at fighting drug misuse.
"We're not fixing the problem," Roden said. "We're just creating Band-Aids."