State Politics

The bill aimed to expand needle exchange programs. But not everyone wanted them.

A sheriffs association has persuaded legislators to limit the expansion of the University of Miami’s needle exchange program.
A sheriffs association has persuaded legislators to limit the expansion of the University of Miami’s needle exchange program. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

A bill that would have allowed dirty syringes to be exchanged for clean ones statewide is likely to be limited to South Florida this year, after a statewide sheriffs’ association opposed any new programs unless they are approved by local officials and law enforcement.

A compromise on the legislation, which expands an existing pilot program in Miami-Dade County, is now expected to add only Broward and Palm Beach counties. Other areas of the state — including those hard-hit by the state’s ballooning opioid epidemic — will still be barred from running needle exchange programs, which are illegal under Florida law.

“It’s disappointing,” said Hansel Tookes, the University of Miami doctor and medical professor who spearheaded the pilot program and pushed to expand it statewide. “But I think that is going to be the best way forward this session.”

The University of Miami-run pilot program, which was created by the Legislature in 2016, exchanges needles to cut down on the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases among drug users.

Advocates say that the program also distributes life-saving overdose reversal drugs to hundreds of drug users, and offers them access to substance abuse counseling they might not otherwise receive.

But the Florida Sheriffs Association began expressing opposition to the bill after it sailed through several House and Senate committees, saying the legislation does not give law enforcement a voice in deciding if the programs should be allowed.

As it is currently written, the House version of the bill allows needle exchange programs to be established without any outside approval beyond notifying the Department of Health, though the Senate bill says programs can be administered by the department as well.

Matt Dunagan, the association’s deputy executive director, said several of his members had expressed reservations about needle exchange programs and said that the bill should require their input.

“It shouldn’t be one treatment provider telling a community to have a needle exchange program,” he said. “It should be the elected officials. … We don’t want this to come to a community if it doesn’t support it.”

Dunagan said most of the members he had heard from were opposed to allowing needle exchanges and proposed an amendment that would have required any new program to be approved by the county commission and the sheriff.

But advocates said the amendment amounted to sheriffs trying to choose which laws they can enforce, and that the association was blocking a program that has provided access to life-saving treatment.

“This is a public health crisis,” said Kasha Bornstein, a medical and public health student at the University of Miami who advocated for the statewide bill. “We want to get a handle on this with public health solutions.”

The bill’s sponsors, Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, and Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, both said they had deep reservations about changing the bill. But Braynon said Friday he would compromise on limiting the expansion to Broward and Palm Beach, where officials in both counties have already actively solicited needle exchange programs.

The new version of the bill boxes out areas of the state like Manatee County and Tampa Bay, where would-be programs like Safe Exchange Tampa and the Suncoast Harm Reduction Project had hoped to start exchanging needles if the initial version of the bill passed this year.

Braynon said he hopes to bring back the statewide expansion proposal next year, but that he and Jones want to pass some version of expansion in the three weeks remaining in this year’s legislative session.

The legislation will be officially amended next week when SB 800 is expected to pass the Senate, Jones said. HB 579, its House companion, will also be heard next week by the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Tookes said the Miami-Dade program has already saved lives, as evidenced by the hundreds of naloxone doses that have already been used.

“I think when people continue to die statewide, when they say why, they’re going to have to go to their sheriffs,” Tookes said. “What does it mean for Manatee and Orange and all those places? It’s heartbreaking that once again they will be kept deprived.”

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