The Missouri House has passed a bill that would legalize programs already operating in the state that give drug abusers clean needles. Supporters say those fight the spread of intravenous diseases and expose drug users to treatment options.
Those running needle exchanges in Missouri now could be charged with violating the state’s drug paraphernalia law. They are protected only by handshake agreements with local law enforcement who recognize the benefit of the programs.
House Bill 168 would exempt from that law needle exchange programs that are registered with the Department of Health and Senior Services.
Supporters say in places with needle exchange programs, drug users are five times more likely to enter treatment. That’s because when users go to get needles, they’re getting them from a health care professional who can tell them about treatment options.
People who’ve benefited from needle exchange programs that are operating outside Missouri law are asking the state House to make them legal so they can be expanded.
Needle exchanges in the Kansas City and St. Louis regions allow abusers of intravenous drugs to get clean needles. Similar exchanges in other states have been shown to be successful in combating the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, while getting more drug abusers into treatment programs.
In Missouri, however, those exchanges are in violation of the state’s drug paraphernalia laws. The ones in Kansas City and St. Louis are essentially operating through unofficial “handshake” agreements with local law enforcement, who allow them to keep running. House Bill 168 would exempt them from the state’s drug paraphernalia laws.
The bill is sponsored by Sikeston Republican Holly Rehder, who has strongly promoted and sponsored this and other bills aimed at fighting opioid abuse throughout her seven years in the House.
Chad Sabora runs one of those programs. He is also a former prosecutor who became a heroin user, and has been in recovery for almost eight years.
He said needle exchanges are successful because they promote human connections with abusers.
Aaron Laxton with the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery, like Sabora, has testified in support of needle exchange legislation several times in past years. He told the committee that in past years he’s talked about loved ones he’s lost to opioid abuse, but in this hearing he offered an example of two lives saved by an exchange program.
He presented his one-and-a-half-month old adopted son Grayson, who was exposed to fentanyl, cocaine, and methadone before birth. He said the programs like those that HB 168 would support help people like Grayson’s mother get into treatment.
Rehder said the CDC has identified 13 counties in Missouri that are primed for an outbreak of Hepatitis C. She said passing her bill would help keep those outbreaks from occurring, and could save the state tens of millions of dollars.
Last year a needle exchange program proposal passed out of the House with 135 votes in favor, but it stalled in the Senate. Rehder said she has assurances from senators that they will help propel her bill to the floor in that chamber if it clears the House this year.
Missouri lawmakers will again consider a bipartisan effort to reduce exposure to and the transmission of HIV in the session that begins in January.
Representatives Holly Rehder (R-Sikeston) and Tracy McCreery (D-St. Louis) have filed legislation that would change Missouri laws that criminalize exposing individuals to HIV. Rehder will also file a bill that would let organizations give clean needles to users of illegal intravenous drugs. Both proposals were also filed last session.
Rehder’s House Bill 168 would relax state laws against delivery of drug paraphernalia. Programs that offer clean needles to users could register with the Department of Health and Senior Services and be allowed to continue operating.
Supporters say the offer of clean needles could reduce the spread among IV drug abusers of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. Representative Rehder said it also make s users 5-times more likely to enter drug treatment because the needle exchange programs put them in direct contact with medical professionals.
House Bills 166 and 167, filed by Reps. McCreery and Rehder, respectively, both aim to change Missouri laws that criminalize the act of knowingly exposing a person to HIV.
Both bills would expand those laws to criminalize knowingly exposing a person to any serious infectious or communicable diseases. Both would also specify that individuals who attempt to prevent transmission, including through the use of a condom or through medical treatment that reduces the risk of transmission, are not knowingly exposing others to a disease.
McCreery and other supporters said those laws have actually discouraged people from getting tested and, if necessary, treated for HIV.
LaTrischa Miles, treatment adherence supervisor with KC Care Health Center, said in the time since Missouri’s and other states’ HIV exposure laws were written treatments have advanced so that people who might be in violation of those laws aren’t actually exposing anyone to a risk of HIV infection.
Last session’s versions of the HIV transmission laws legislation, House Bills 2675 (McCreery) and 2674 (Rehder) were subject to a hearing by the House Committee on Health and Mental Health Services. The hearing was in the final days of the session so the bills did not advance, but the committee encouraged McCreery and Rehder to reintroduce the bills for 2019.
These three bills were among dozens filed by lawmakers on Monday, the first day legislation could be prefiled for the session that begins in January.