For nearly a dozen years, George Gibson worked in the shadows of Miami, meeting intravenous drug users at bus stops, corners and alleys to exchange dirty needles for clean ones.
The exchanges, typically on a one-to-one ratio, served as the entrée into a conversation about the risks of spreading HIV, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases through tainted needles and, in the best case scenario , the first step toward drug treatment.
He has since stopped his small, unofficial needle exchange program – which served a dozen or so users – but he now hopes Florida lawmakers will approve a bill for a five-year pilot program in Miami-Dade County to legalize syringe and needle exchange programs. Such exchanges operate in at least 35 states, but remain illegal in Florida. The bill is based on research conducted by University of Miami students.
“It’s not a pretty business, but if I can get one person a clean needle which helps to stop the spread of disease, then it’s worth it,’’ says Gibson, 46, a community activist who also distributed educational materials and condoms in Liberty City, Overtown and Brownsville. “I am hoping they finally make this legal because it saves lives.’’
Rep. Mark S. Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat, is trying to move HB 735 bill through the Judiciary Committee and the Health & Human Services Committee but time is running short in the legislative session. A similar bill in the Senate, sponsored by Miami Democratic Sen. Gwen Margolis, has stalled.
Still, Pafford is continuing to fight for the measure, hoping to attach it as an amendment to another bill.
“I really didn’t think this bill had a chance,’’ he said, adding that the efforts of the UM students helped raise its profile. “I’ve got to find a bill to amend it to and, with a little luck, it’ll get out of the House and to the Senate. If not this year, maybe next year.”
In taking on the issue, he said, “This is absolutely about public safety. We are talking about trying to lower the spread of diseases and limiting the exposure of used needles to first responders like firefighters.’’
The proposed legislation was inspired by a study published by a UM student showing that Miami had eight times the number of publicly discarded needles as San Francisco, where the estimated population of injection drug users is double that of Miami. Needle exchanges have operated for 25 years in San Francisco.
The bill calls for the exchange program to provide free, clean and unused needles and hypodermic syringes in exchange for used needles and syringes as a way to curb the transmission of diseases among injection drug users, as well as to protect emergency workers and members of the public who might inadvertently come into contact with contaminated injection supplies. Participants would also receive educational materials, HIV counseling and testing and referrals to drug treatment. The program would operate for five years and be funded through grants and donations.
Historically, needle exchange programs have met some resistance, with critics arguing that such programs facilitate and encourage drug use. In the late 1980s, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms led the effort to ban federal funding of the programs. In 2009, Congress, then controlled by Democrats, rescinded the ban only to have the ban reinstated three years later by a Republican Congress.