By Dave Andreesen
Posted Apr 25, 2016 at 9:10 PM
Updated at 9:11 PM
LEE — The New Hampshire Senate will decide the fate of a controversial proposal to decriminalize the possession of needles with trace amounts of opiates. Supporters say this would make it easier for public health organizations to set up needle exchange programs, and is a crucial in helping avoid the transmission of blood-borne diseases that are beginning to appear in other states.
Rep. Joe Hannon, R-Lee, sponsored the bill in the House, which would pave the way for programs to be setup to allow drug users the ability to exchange dirty needles with clean ones. Currently, only pharmacists can dispense a maximum of 10 syringes at a time to those with a prescription. The bill also decriminalizes possession of a syringe with a residual amount of drugs, which is a felony under current law.
The impetus behind Hannon’s bill comes as other states that are seeing a rise in heroin addiction have also seen a rise in blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, both which can be transmitted through dirty needles.
“The whole point of the bill is to prevent a public health epidemic now,” Hannon said. “Harmful reduction is a simple process. Once I found out about Indiana’s problems, I knew this was urgent.”
Hannon, a doctor by profession, said he heard about the rise in reported HIV and hepatitis cases in heroin users. In the town of Austin, Indiana — population 4,000 — there has been 190 new diagnosis of HIV since 2015. Utah — which Hannon said he modeled the law he wrote after— just passed a needle exchange law after the state health department reported a 37 percent increase in hepatitis cases over a two-year period, and a smaller increase in new HIV diagnosis.While New Hampshire doesn’t have any conclusive evidence yet that cases of hepatitis and HIV are on the rise, Dr. Bryan Marsh of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center told Seacoast Online that the Granite State could eventually experience the same situation as Indiana.
“Injectable drug use is a most effective way to transmit both of these diseases if the practices are not safe, and in many cases, they are highly unlikely to be safe,” Marsh said. “We have not been as attentive to this as we need to be.”
Marsh said that Indiana’s problems should be “a wake-up call to all communities.”
While Hannon’s bill passed the House by an overwhelming margin last month, it now faces uncertainty in the Senate, mainly from the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.
Tuftonboro Police Chief Andrew Shagoury, the association’s vice president, testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and said he was opposed to the bill because it made no provisions for a needle exchange.
“It shouldn’t have been called a needle exchange bill,” he told Foster’s in an interview. “The bill that passed the House only legalized the possession of needles with residual amounts of controlled drugs in them.”
hagoury said the association is not opposed to a regulated needle-exchange program, but the bill doesn’t do enough to clarify existing laws and how it pertains to law enforcement. “There was a lack of definition of ‘residual’ and how the section on paraphernalia conflicted with other sections of the law,” he said.
State Assistant Attorney General James Vara — recently tapped by Gov. Maggie Hassan as the next drug czar — also testified that what would be considered a residual amount could affect law enforcement’s ability to prosecute
“This will take away state police discretion for what is a residual amount,” he said, adding it could result in law enforcement not having probable cause for a vehicle search warrant.
In Shagoury’s testimony, he said the bill is problematic because it gives anyone immunity from possessing a syringe with trace amounts of drugs.
“It also allows anyone to sell or give away needles anywhere,” Shagoury said, adding that even convenience stores would be allowed to sell syringes. “Because there is no oversight, how can anyone receiving a needle be sure it’s sterile? How will anyone know if the program is effective? Sometimes arresting people for possessing residual amounts of drugs is the best opportunity to get someone into treatment.”
Shagoury said the association appealed to the Senate to model New Hampshire’s law after Vermont, mainly because their needle-exchange programs must be registered with the state. He also pushed for the Senate to study the issue for a few months before enacting a law. For Hannon, that’s time wasted.
“They’re killing people if they don’t pass it,” Hannon said. “One of the most conservative states in the nation, Utah, even passed a needle-exchange law because they knew the seriousness of it.”
Hannon knows all too well the effects of habitual drug abuse. He’s been in recovery since the age of 19, and although he wasn’t a heroin or intravenous drug user, said he’s seen first-hand how detrimental heroin abuse can be. His experience, along with his medical background, was one of the reasons he volunteered to serve on the governor’s Joint Task Force on the Heroin and Opioid Crisis.
The bill is set to be voted on by the Senate on Thursday. If it passes, New Hampshire — the only state in New England without a needle-exchange program — would join five other states that have decriminalized the possession of residual drugs in syringes.
To get your Senator’s contact info click here: http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/Senate/default.aspx