Legislature 2014

South Florida lawmakers ramp up push for needle-exchange bill

 

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

The finish line is in sight for a coalition of medical students, healthcare professionals and state lawmakers seeking to create a needle exchange program in Miami-Dade County.

The group was unable to persuade the Legislature last year to allow the controversial pilot program, through which intravenous drug users could swap used needles for clean ones. Needle exchange programs are prohibited under Florida law.

But this year, similar proposals have sailed through committee votes and are ready to be heard on the House and Senate floor.

“It’s just a matter of whether leadership puts it on the calendar,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, who is sponsoring the bill in the House.

That isn’t a guarantee. During the final two weeks of the session, scores of bills will be competing for coveted calendar spots.

The lawmakers who control the calendars — Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill — did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

The proposals (SB 408 and HB 491) would empower the state Department of Health to launch the pilot program in Miami-Dade. The department would also provide drug treatment referrals, HIV testing and counseling services.

The program would be funded by grants and private donors, and would last only five years. After that, state lawmakers could chose to suspend or continue the effort.

Hansel Tookes, a recent graduate of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, pointed out that Miami has the highest rate of new HIV infections in the country.

“It is incumbent upon us to do whatever we can to decrease that,” he said. “If this program is as effective as it has been in other cities, it could decrease the rate of new infections in the drug-using community by 80 percent.”

Tookes said the measure would also help reduce the number of used needles that litter some Miami streets.

“This is a very obvious problem in Miami, and we have a very obvious solution,” he said.

The House bill won the support of four committees without a single “no” vote.

The Senate version passed through three committees. Only one senator — Thrasher — opposed the bill. But he did not block the proposal from being heard in the Rules Committee he chairs, suggesting that he might be open to hearing the bill on the floor.

In the past, critics have expressed concern that distributing clean needles would enable drug users to keep up the habit. And some lawmakers have been hesitant to sign a bill that would only affect Miami-Dade.

But Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said he was optimistic about the bill’s chances in the final two weeks of the session. He and other members of the Miami-Dade delegation plan to ramp up efforts to build support, he said.

“Our HIV rates are so high, and it’s costing Jackson [Health System] so much money,” Braynon said. “This is a great way to give them some sort of relief.”

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category