After being stymied in the state legislature for a decade, a law going into effect with the new year will permit illegal drug users to buy syringes without a prescription in New York state. New York will join 40 other states that now allow the practice.
Unlike previous legislative sessions, the bill's supporters, led by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), this year won the low-key support of Republican Gov. George Pataki and GOP leaders and the bill slipped quietly into law.
Gottfried praised the governor for "investing an enormous amount of time and capital" in passing the measure. "The hero is George Pataki, and you don't hear those words come out of my mouth very often," Gottfried told the Albany Times-Union.
Corinne Carey, director of the Urban Justice Center's Harm Reduction Project and member of the New York Syringe Decriminalization Working Group, was less effusive.
"It's admirable that the governor signed this," Carey told DRCNet, "but it was the work of many people, and especially Donald Grove of the Harm Reduction Coalition. They all deserve some credit for this."
Public health concerns, particularly the role of drug injectors in the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, prompted the bill's passage.
"If HIV were not transmitted by the sharing of needles, the epidemic would be half the size it is today," Gottfried told the Times-Union. "We are talking about tens of thousands of lives."
When neighboring Connecticut adopted a similar law in 1992, HIV infections dropped by one-third.
"The evidence is telling from studies in other countries, as well as in Connecticut, that this saves lives," Dr. George Clifford of the Albany Medical Center AIDS Program told the Times-Union.
"There's a huge need for this," said the Harm Reduction Project's Carey. "We estimate there are 25,000 drug injectors in New York City alone, and each injection should use a clean needle."
The new law permits state-registered pharmacies, health care facilities and medical practitioners to dispense up to ten syringes at a time without a prescription to anyone over the age of 18. It also allows for the possession of those syringes.
But there is a glitch in the law that has yet to be completely worked out. The needle law changed the public health law section of the New York statutes, but the state assembly failed to change the state's criminal code, which continues to criminalize syringe possession without a prescription.
"This is a problem," admits Carey. "If the police just look at the criminal law, nothing has changed and people will be hauled in and spend hours or days sitting in jail."
The Working Group on Syringe Deregulation asked the state health department to cross-reference the relevant public health and criminal statutes, so that police and prosecutors would be aware of the exception, Carey said, but the department declined.
"But they will add an insert to the package so that people can show it to police," said Carey. "The working group has been working with the AIDS Institute and the health department to make the regulations as user friendly as possible."
The new law will complement, not replace, existing needle exchange programs.
Some areas have no needle exchange programs. The Albany Times-Union, for example, reported that in the 17-county Capital Region, with over 1,500 injection-related AIDS cases, there are no needle exchange programs (NEPs).
In other areas, existing NEPs and new over-the-counter syringe sales will serve different injecting populations, Carey suggested.
"NEPs are a haven for people profoundly disconnected from other services," she told DRCNet. "These folks are not comfortable, they feel shunned and rejected by social service providers."
"I've seen studies that show incredible racial disparities in drug injectors being able to get syringes at pharmacies," she said. "If you look like a drug addict or a homeless person, the pharmacy may decline to serve you. Nothing forbids them from doing that."
"And don't forget, NEPs provide much more than injection equipment," Carey pointed out. "They test people for hepatitis, they hook people up with counseling and drug treatment options."