A bill that would allow adults to purchase syringes without a prescription passed the Illinois House Tuesday. The Illinois Senate approved the measure on March 24, so it now awaits only the signature of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). He is expected to sign the bill, said Karen Reitan of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (http://www.aidschicago.org), one of leaders in a broad coalition of medical, public health, merchant and harm reduction groups that pushed for the measure. If the governor indeed signs, Illinois will become the 46th state to allow the purchase of syringes without a prescription. Only California, Delaware, Massachusetts and New Jersey currently require prescriptions to purchase syringes. "We are very optimistic the governor will sign the bill," Reitan told DRCNet. "He pledged before the election that he would sign it, and his office indicated this week that he still plans to do so."
"The governor sees [the syringe bill] as an effective way of reducing AIDS and HIV and improving the delivery of prevention services," Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff told the Chicago Sun-Times Tuesday. The Illinois bill is part of a strategy aimed at reducing the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C, and other blood-borne infections. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, nearly half of all new HIV infections result from injection drug use or sexual contact with an injection drug user. Needle sharing has been shown to decline in states that have eased the availability of syringes.
"This is the most significant piece of HIV prevention legislation to pass in Illinois in over a decade," said Mark Ishaug, AIDS Foundation of Chicago executive director. "It will literally save the lives of thousands of men, women and children."
Under the bill, adults will be able to purchase up to 20 syringes at a time without a prescription. The bill also requires the state Department of Health to produce educational pamphlets on the dangers of drug use, how AIDS and HIV spread, how to seek out drug treatment, and how to properly dispose of needles. Pharmacists would be required to give the pamphlets to everyone who buys needles.
While the governor and the state medical and public health establishment have come around, it hasn't been an easy fight, said Reitan. "People have been trying to get this bill passed for the last 10 years," she said, "and the Chicago AIDS Foundation has been pushing this for the last four years."
The legislation passed the House in 2000, but was defeated in the Senate that year after members expressed fears it would encourage drug use. That sentiment was still present this year, with, for example, Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) calling the measure "hideous" and arguing that addicts would throw needles on the street where they could infect children.
"You are asking people who have a condition of using heroin to do something responsible," Flowers said in urging the bill's defeat. "I'm asking you to please take into consideration what we're doing here in regards to drugs. Drugs are illegal in this state. Heroin is illegal in this country. We're sending the wrong message, ladies and gentlemen, to young people that it's okay to do heroin, but it's not okay to do marijuana."
But public health trumped prohibitionist ideology for the bill's supporters. "If people can have access to sterile syringes, they will, time after time, use clean syringes," argued state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), the bill's sponsor. "The data has demonstrated very strongly that this really does help stem the spread of AIDS. I think this is a quantum leap."
With the bill passing by a margin of 70-48 in the House and 30-24 in the Senate, it was evident that members were listening to the impressive coalition put together by the bill's supporters this year. "We had a huge group supporting this bill, including the Illinois Pharmacists Association, the Illinois Medical Society, the Illinois Public Health Association, the state Academy of Family Physicians, the state Academy of Pediatricians, the state nurses' association, many, many county public health departments, and Walgreen's and the Illinois Retail Merchants' Association," said Reitan. Walgreen's and the merchants were involved because they represented pharmacies in the state, Reitan explained. "We also worked with harm reduction groups, such as the Chicago Recovery Alliance," she added.
The effort received outside help from the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org), Reitan said. "We partnered with DPA on this, and they've funded and helped us, they've been very supportive." Reitan and the AIDS Foundation praised legislators for following science and not fear in voting for the bill. "State lawmakers can be proud that they allowed the best available scientific evidence to inform their decisions regarding syringe policy in Illinois," said Reitan.
Visit http://www.legis.state.il.us to read SB 880, the Hypodermic Syringe and Needle Act.