Advocates of needle exchange programs (NEPs) to reduce the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C set up illegal NEPs and information booths at locations across Massachusetts Monday. The activists are attempting to put pressure on Bay State lawmakers to enact legislation pending for years that would allow NEPs statewide and the sale of needles without a prescription. The action was coordinated by the New England Prevention Alliance (NEPA), which, along with other groups, set up NEPs in New Bedford, Lawrence, and Worcester and informational tables in Springfield and Lynn.
Massachusetts is one of only five states to require a prescription to obtain needles, and while state law allows municipalities to operate NEPS, few do. As has been the case for year after year, bills that would have enacted the desired reforms died in the legislature despite the support of health care professionals, law enforcement officials, and a long list of other organizations.
Activists point the finger at Massachusetts Speaker of the House Rep. Tom Finneran (D), whom they say used his influence to bottle-up reform bills. Finneran did not return DRCNet calls requesting a response.
"We had good syringe availability legislation this year," said Whitney Taylor, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts (http://www.dpfma.org), one of the groups that participated in Monday's action. "We actually had a bill requested by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino that made it out of the joint health care committee, but it was bottled-up in the House Ways and Means committee, where it died again," she told DRCNet. "House speaker Finneran is a major stumbling block. He's a Democrat, but very conservative, and he kills any drug reform bill -- NEPs, medical marijuana, sentencing reform, nothing makes out of the legislature."
NEPs are a proven means of reducing the spread of HIV and Hep C among injection drug users. A stark assessment of their efficacy is available in Massachusetts. According to the state Department of Public Health, in the four localities that have NEPs, the percentage of new HIV cases related to injection drug use range from 7% in Provincetown to 24% in Cambridge, 28% in Boston, and 44% in Northampton. But in cities without NEPs, the rates are much higher. In Springfield and Lawrence, 51% of HIV cases are injection drug use-related; in Lynn and Worcester, 60%; and in New Bedford, a stunning 69%.
In most locations, the NEP civil disobedience actions went off without problems and succeeded in generating extensive local media coverage of the issue. One activist, however, was arrested in New Bedford after she exchanged a clean needle for a used one. Kelli Dorsey, 28, was arrested despite being registered with the Boston NEP program. Authorities in New Bedford argued that being a program registrant allowed Dorsey only to possess needles, not to distribute them, but NEP activists disagree.
"This was a day of action with civil disobedience," said Taylor. "It was a planned reaction to the legislature's failure to act. We planned ahead and were very specific on who would get arrested. We were prepared for it," she said.
Actually, said Taylor, activists were prepared for more arrests, but the police refused to play along. "In Worcester and Lawrence, the police circled and watched. In Lawrence, the police were actually coming to arrest our people when we could hear the radio call from the chief of police to leave them alone. The cynical part of me says there were no arrests because they didn't want the publicity."
But the day of activism got plenty of publicity anyway. Newspaper articles appeared in outlets across the state, and the story was picked up by the Associated Press. It also appeared on local TV and radio news outlets.
"We wanted to get word out that something has to change in this state," said Holly Bradford, a member of the New England Prevention Alliance (NEPA), which has been handing out syringes without waiting for the laws to change. "Every year, we have a bill in the House; every year it gets stalled, and meanwhile, people are getting sick and dying," she told DRCNet.
Bradford said activists welcomed the arrest in New Bedford. "What we want to be able to do is go out and set up storefronts and do secondary exchanges, where people who have registration cards can help those people in outlying marginalized areas. We don't see what's wrong with that. We think if you're a registered participant, you're allowed to possess and distribute syringes, but when we go to these towns and help people get access to clean equipment, that seems to be a problem. We'll have to go to court and pound this out," Bradford said.
There is a race and class component to the problem, both Bradford and Taylor agreed. "What we are trying to do is reach those populations that no one is serving," said Bradford, "and that means mostly people of color in oppressed areas."
"The cities that are hardest hit are mostly majority people of color," said Taylor. "They don't have any syringe exchange except for what happens illegally. This is a very moralistic issue, and there is an element of paternalism as well. The politicians say they will take care of the people, but they don't."
Police not only arrest people for needle possession, said Bradford, they also harass people who are registered members of NEPs. "They take people's cards away and throw them down the sewer and say their cards are no good," she said. "We've tried to work with the police, but we haven't had much success.
Despite the recalcitrance of some police and legislators, Taylor is optimistic. "We got a lot of local press, and now maybe we can reintroduce and pass these bills at the local level, as well as looking toward the 2005-2006 state legislative session," she said. "We had a state representative from Lawrence come down and talk to the protestors and say he would sign on. When you have more and more legislators coming on board and a growing coalition emerging, it makes the political nature of the killing of this bill all the more evident. We are starting to build a nice coalition of people to move forward."
And the protests were morale boosters for the communities involved, Taylor said. "People who work in HIV prevention in Massachusetts get kicked around all the time," she said. "They need the hope this kind of action provides."