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Senate Needle Exchange Measure Passes Another Committee

Rep. Katie Edwards (D-Plantation) is moving forward with a needle exchange pilot program.
Kaytee Riek via Flickr

Drugs can play havoc on the body but for some drugs the mode of delivery can be just as dangerous.  That’s why one Florida lawmaker wants to launch a needle exchange program in Miami-Dade County.

Not to pile on, but Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has had a pretty rough couple of weeks.  The firestorm over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act is only just now beginning to die down, and right before that he faced another major headache—an outbreak of HIV in Scott County spreading quickly among intravenous drug users.  Pence was forced to reverse course and authorize a needle exchange program in the community in hopes of containing the spread.  Both drew the attention of national media outlets like CNN, and Sen. Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens) is hoping to avoid a similar story in Florida.

“I just got news that the Governor just signed into law this exact same program in a high—HIV high county in Indiana,” Braynon says in a committee hearing Wednesday.

But even in light of recent events, he faces an uphill battle.  Needle exchange programs are often opposed by people on the right as being soft on crime, because of a perception that they condone continued drug use.  But Braynon argues his bill actually addresses public safety and cessation.

“The second thing that we would accomplish with this,” Braynon says, “is bringing these people who are hard core drug users in and giving them information about rehab, giving them information about how to get their life together.”

In addition, Braynon’s measure calls for state policy analysts to conduct a study of the program’s effectiveness and make recommendations about continuing or expanding it in the future.  But Hansel Tookes, a doctor at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, says the evidence from other jurisdictions are indisputable.

“The evidence that needle exchanges prevent HIV and hepatitis is as strong as the evidence that smoking cessation prevents cancer,” Tookes says.

He goes on to say intravenous drug users face many other issues related to dirty needles—and taxpayers can end up on the hook for all of it.

“Heart infections, sepsis, abscesses, and these come from direct injection of bacteria into the human body with dirty needles,” Tookes says.  “While one-third of the patients in our study were uninsured or had safety net health plans with their bills paid by Miami-Dade county tax payers, over forty percent of these patients had Medicaid, meaning all Floridians—everybody in this room—was footing the bill for these preventable infections.”

Although it’s often tough for criminal justice minded politicians to back this kind of program, the dollars and cents considerations can be a pretty convincing argument.  Tookes points out the House bill’s analysis projects savings for the state of nearly $125 million if just one in ten intravenous drug users with HIV had avoided their infection. 

But probably the biggest number arguing in favor of Braynon’s pilot is zero.  Braynon’s bill simply allows the University of Miami to administer the program.  All the funding has to come from grants and donations. 

This is the third time this bill is moving forward in the state Legislature.  Last year it died after the House tacked on an amendment late in the process.

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.