Miami-Dade County

Needle exchange bill finds early support in Florida

Last year, South Florida lawmakers couldn’t muster enough support to create a needle exchange pilot program in Miami-Dade County.

This year, the proposal has new life.

On Monday, the needle exchange bill won the unanimous support of a second Senate committee. It is scheduled to have its first hearing before a House panel on Tuesday.

“We’re more prepared than we were last year,” said Hansel Tookes, a University of Miami medical student who helped craft the proposal. “All of the evidence is in our favor. These programs have been shown to decrease instances of HIV and hepatitis.”

Needle exchange programs are illegal in Florida. But studies have shown success in other states.

In 2009, Tookes found that drug users in Miami were 34 times more likely to dispose of their needles publicly than drug users in San Francisco, which has a needle exchange program. His research was published in 2011 in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence medical journal, and was the inspiration for the proposed legislation.

Senate Bill 408 and House Bill 491 are almost identical to the needle exchange bills presented last year.

They call for the state Department of Health to create a pilot program enabling intravenous drug users in Miami-Dade County to swap used needles for clean ones.

The health department would also provide educational materials about drug addiction and blood-borne diseases, as well as drug treatment referrals and HIV testing and counseling.

After five years, state lawmakers would have the option to suspend or continue the effort.

State Sen. Oscar Braynon, the Miami Gardens Democrat sponsoring the proposal in the Senate, said the needle exchange program would be funded entirely by grants and private donors.

“It would cost the state nothing,” he said. “It might even save some money, because people with these blood-borne diseases are coming into our emergency rooms and costing us millions.”

The measure has some powerful supporters, including the Florida Medical Association and the Florida Hospital Association. So far, it has received only favorable votes.

But last year, at least one lawmaker raised concerns about the program facilitating illegal drug use. Others were reluctant to support a program affecting only Miami-Dade County.

Rep. Mark Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat and the bill sponsor in the House, said logistics ultimately caused the proposal to stall.

“It was a timing issue,” Pafford said. “The bill starting moving late in the session, when there were a lot of bills competing to get a hearing. This wasn’t deemed high priority.”

Pafford said he feels “more positive” about the proposal’s chances than he did last year, in part because of the early support in the Senate.

He is hoping to get the word out about the potential benefit to police officers, firefighters and first responders.

“This would certainly be helpful to uniformed officers who are patting down people and working in an environment where these things are laying around,” Pafford said.

For Tookes, 32, shepherding the proposal through the Florida Legislature has been a learning process.

“Seeing the bill fizzle out last year was frustrating,” he said.

But Tookes remains committed to seeing the bill become law. He has been attending the committee meetings and speaking in its support.

“We’re at a point where we need to either tackle this issue or suffer the consequences,” Tookes said. “We can save tons of lives with this. We have the opportunity to prevent a lot of complications from injection drug use and do a really good thing.”

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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