Injection drug users in Connecticut can breathe a bit easier this week. In a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Project, a federal judge has ruled that protections she previously granted to people possessing needles should be expanded to include other injecting equipment as well.
In 2001, acting on complaints of harassment and persecution by drug users and needle exchange workers in Bridgeport and citing the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable search and seizure, the ACLU won an order blocking the Bridgeport Police Department "from searching, stopping, arresting, punishing or penalizing... any person based solely upon that person's possession of up to thirty sets of injection equipment."
But as she prepared to hand down her latest ruling Thursday, US District Court Judge Janet Hall complained that "my order may well have been written in invisible ink." On Thursday, she chastised the Bridgeport police for failing to diligently follow her earlier order, but rejected an ACLU motion to find the department in contempt. She did, however, expand the protection in the earlier order to include injection equipment such as cotton balls and items used to cook drugs.
"The message of this much-needed ruling should be heard nationwide," said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. "Public health should be placed above punitive posturing. Law enforcement should be chiefly concerned with the public welfare, which is markedly increased by respecting the rights of needle exchange participants and acknowledging the vital importance of these exchanges to public safety."
The Bridgeport Syringe Exchange, in operation for more than a dozen years now, is one of around 200 such programs in the country. Every scientific study of needle exchanges has found that they are an effective way of reducing the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.
"The police can contribute to public health and safety by supporting efforts that engage injection drug users in disease prevention programs that simultaneously serve as conduits to treatment for addiction," said Robert Heimer, PhD, a professor at Yale School of Public Health and a nationally renowned expert on the emergence and prevention of infectious diseases. "In the long run, this is the only reliable means to decrease addiction at the community level."