Syringe exchange programs spark drug prevention debate

By Zoie Richey
TheStatehouseFile.com 

INDIANAPOLIS — As lawmakers consider expanding access to syringe exchange programs, they’re having to weigh how the changes would impact both public health and drug prevention.

House Bill 1438 would allow a county or city to enact its own syringe exchange program rather than seek approval from the state.

Executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, David Powell, shows members of the Senate Health and Provider Services Committee photos of kits that non-profits are currently giving out in Indiana. Photo by Zoie Richey, TheStatehouseFile.com

“I believe the extra step of requiring state permission for programs that are already locally run is quite frankly an unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle that can slow a community’s ability to respond to a rapidly evolving health crisis,” Dr. Jerome Adams, Indiana state health commissioner, said in committee.

Adams and other health professionals who gave testimony Wednesday have been studying the syringe exchange programs that already exist within the state. Adams has no doubt that the syringe exchange programs have already prevented hundreds of people from contracting the HIV and hepatitis C, and can save the state $136 million in health costs.

David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, agreed that the syringe exchange programs decrease the spread of disease, but is concerned some think syringe programs solve some of the state’s drug problems.

“Folks with addiction, we all know, just can’t stop,” he said. “They get dope sick and have horrible side effects, and the only alternative they have to go to is heroin.”

A bill moving through the General Assembly would limit how many opioid pills doctors can prescribe to some patients. If that bill becomes law, Powell said lawmakers should be prepared to see heroin use increase, especially since the price of heroin is so cheap.

Attorney General Curtis Hill did not testify Wednesday, but told a House Public Health Committee in January that the current exchange programs have evolved into a needle give away.  

“This bill is a detriment to our efforts to get victims of drug abuse the treatment they need, as it will only serve to further trap them in the vicious cycle of opioid addiction,” he said.

Adams said he can see Hill’s point of view, and that he is working with the attorney general, lawmakers and the law enforcement community.

“This is messy. Substance use disorder is messy. Needles are messy,” Adams said. “It’s always going to be a balance of the pros and the cons, but there are some definite pros that I think far outweigh the cons as part of this outbreak.”

The bill passed the Senate Health and Provider Services Committee 12-0 and will now move to the full Senate for discussion.

Zoie Richey is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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