New York Assembly Legalizes Over the Counter Sale of Syringes 5/12/00

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In an effort to fight the spread the AIDS and further buttress the success of existing needle exchange programs, New York lawmakers have passed a bill to make hypodermic needles available in drug stores without a prescription.

Beginning January 1, 2001 needles will be potentially available in every pharmacy throughout New York State without a prescription. It will be up to the pharmacist at each drug store whether he or she will make up to ten syringes per customer available. The syringes will only be sold from behind the counter.

The legislation was initiated by Governor George Pataki, a Republican. "This is essentially a deregulation bill," Glenn Backes of the Lindesmith Center, which supported the legislation, told The Week Online. "There is no appropriation. What the Governor has essentially done is spent zero dollars and saved thousands of lives. This is in an example of how government can do the right thing by getting out of the way. I think Republicans can relate to that." Backes said the Governor was instrumental in getting the bill through the Senate and Assembly.

Currently, drug users can get syringes without a prescription from needle exchange programs, but because there are only 14 such clinics statewide, Backes said there are not currently enough clean needles being distributed to prevent the spread of AIDS, Hepatits C and other blood borne diseases. Onerous regulations have made it difficult for new programs to open.

Backes said the new law will work with existing needle exchange programs to further halt the spread of AIDS. "The basis of an AIDS prevention plan should be treatment on demand and wide syringe availability," he said. "Commercial access through pharmacies will not address the needs of all people, particularly people whose lives are really screwed up: homeless, poor and the mentally ill. These people will need the social delivery model that is needle exchange. This legislation will serve people in small cities and towns where the need to be anonymous as a drug user overrides other concerns. There will never be needle exchanges in small towns."

Even with existing needle exchanges, the need isn't being met in New York City either. According to the New York Academy of Medicine, if each injection drug user in the city were to have a clean needle every time they injected, needle exchanges are only providing two percent of needle needs for the city.

Backes said the legislation could only increase the percentage of clean needles being used by IV drug users. "In New York City there are a lot more Rite Aids than needle exchanges."

While they won't be offering the kind of counseling and treatment that is usually found at the needle exchange, pharmacies will be required to provide a safety packet with the needles warning users about sharing needles and the proper use and disposal of syringes.

New York was only one of a few remaining states that still require prescriptions for needles. The same legislation approved in New York just passed in New Hampshire this week, and is being considered in Illinois. States in which IV drug users still need prescriptions include Massachusetts, California, Delaware, New Jersey and the District of Columbia.

New Jersey is the only one of those states that does not allow needle exchange programs either. Backes said it's no coincidence that New Jersey has the highest rates of HIV infection among IV drug users in the country. "It's because they have the most rigid and ridiculous policy," he said.

The rate of the spread of AIDS in New York is a sixth of what it was five years ago, and much of that decrease can be attributed to existing needle exchange programs, according to Backes. Making more clean needles available to more people can only help.

For more information about syringe exchange, visit DRCNet's Project Sero web site at http://www.projectsero.org. The Lindesmith Center web site also contains fact sheets and other information about syringe exchange; check it out at http://www.lindesmith.org. The North American Syringe Exchange Network is online at http://www.nasen.org.

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