In an uncommon act of common sense, the Ohio House has passed a bipartisan bill that would permit communities to set up needle exchange programs for drug users without declaring a public health emergency. The Senate should promptly approve the measure and send it to Gov. John Kasich.
The bill would alleviate public health problems linked to Ohio’s growing heroin problem and opiate epidemic. Allowing drug users to exchange dirty syringes for clean needles would help protect them against the spread of hepatitis C, HIV, and other infections that can be passed among intravenous drug users through dirty needles.
The bill calls for no new money. Local health boards would set up and pay for their own programs.
Critics of the bill say it would promote drug use. That’s a ludicrous and naive argument. The revised law would help reduce drug abuse, requiring local programs to counsel drug users on addiction and disease transmission.
State Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), a co-sponsor of the bill, says the legislation “slides people from use to treatment in a way that meets them where they’re at.” Participants in needle exchange programs would remain anonymous and protected from prosecution or arrest.
Most states already allow needle exchanges. In Michigan, the Detroit-based Community Health Awareness Group runs one of the nation’s leading programs. Community health workers, many of them ex-addicts, enter areas of high drug use with mobile vans, hand out clean needles, and talk to addicts about getting treatment.
Under current law, needle exchanges can be created in Ohio only with a declared local health emergency. Cleveland and Portsmouth have such programs.
Whether or not an emergency is declared, the epidemic of AIDS, hepatitis C, and heroin abuse has reached crisis proportions across Ohio. Intravenous drug use is a leading cause of HIV transmission.
More than 20,000 people in Ohio, including an estimated 1,000 in Lucas County, are living with HIV or AIDS. In Lucas County, nearly half of those infected are African-Americans, the county health department reports.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20 percent of people with HIV don’t know they carry it. That makes them especially likely to transmit the virus.
The House bill would enable local community leaders, law enforcement officers, and health departments to make important decisions about public health and safety. Permitting syringe exchange programs not only would create a path to treatment, but also would reduce the number of dirty and dangerous syringes that now litter many urban playgrounds, parks, and city streets, where they can come into contact with children.
This common-sense legislation will save lives and reduce drug abuse. The Senate should approve it quickly and send it to the governor.