South Florida lawmakers ramp up push for needle-exchange bill

04/17/2014 6:36 PM

04/17/2014 6:38 PM

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.”

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