Opinion: Clean Needle Bill — Over the Counter Compassion

R. William Potter | November 21, 2011 | Opinion
The Assembly votes today on a bill that could save tens of thousands of lives and millions of dollars.

Question: What costs 10 cents and saves not only lives but also $618,000 in public healthcare costs?

Answer: A clean syringe (plunger plus needle).

For Tea Partiers looking to reduce healthcare costs and get government off our backs, and for Wall Street Occupiers who rally for the underdogs, you have common ground: Support the enactment of Assembly Bill 1088, which will lift the 66-year ban on Over the Counter (OTC) sales of clean, disposable syringes in New Jersey.

At a rate of return of more than 6 million percent, there’s no better bargain than this bill, which legalizes OTC sales of up to 10 syringes per customer by licensed pharmacies and ends the criminalization — up to 18 months in jail — of anyone caught with a syringe without a doctor’s prescription for it.

Besides the savings, there are the many lives that will be spared. Clean needles can prevent or least slow the spread of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C — a severe liver disease — and other often fatal blood-borne illnesses passed from victim to victim by dirty needles.

To be clear: The estimated lifetime cost of caring for one HIV/AIDS patient: $618,000. The lifetime cost of caring for one Hepatitis C victim: More than $100,000.

Even worse than the cost is the unabated stream of lives lost to these readily preventable diseases. To date, more than 73,000 HIV/AIDS case have been reported in New Jersey. Nearly 39,000 of these are fatalities. And 41 percent of HIV/AIDS cases were caused by sharing contaminated syringes or used needles. That’s more than twice the national rate of 17 percent.

This epidemic has hit the state’s poor and racial minorities by far the hardest: More than three-quarters of all adult or adolescent HIV/AIDS cases in New Jersey are African-American or Hispanic. Women are especially vulnerable. The Garden State has the highest rate of women infected with HIV in the nation. And we have the third-highest pediatric HIV rate in the country. (All data provided by the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance.)

Of all the states, only Delaware and New Jersey still ban the OTC sales of syringes. That’s right. Clean syringes can be legally bought at the local CVS or Rite-Aide without a prescription in all the Red states and in the archconservative Bible Belt.

But not in liberal, highly educated New Jersey.

But this shameful distinction may be about to change. Today, the State Assembly has scheduled a floor vote on A1088, which should lift this senseless ban. (A bill is usually listed for an up or down vote only if enough “ayes” have lined up to pass it.)

This vote comes 9 months after the Senate, in a rare bipartisan display of common sense and compassion, voted overwhelmingly for the companion bill, S-958.

From the legislature, the final bill then goes down the hall to the governor’s office for his signature. Or his veto. As of this writing, there is no official word of where Gov. Chris Christie stands on this long-overdue legislation.

But assuming the bill gets past the Assembly today, as seems likely, the governor needs to sign it. Delay is deadly and costly. And any fear that lifting the ban — first enacted in 1955 — will lead to increased drug abuse are unfounded.

“Every scientific, medical, and professional body to study the issue has concluded that OTC access to sterile syringes reduces the spread of blood-borne diseases and does not increase illegal drug use,” according to a letter from Roseanne Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, to newspaper editorial boards.

The list of public health agencies and organizations that support passage of A-1088 reads like a who’s who of the medical establishment. It include the New Jersey State Nurses Association, the American Diabetes Association, the Garden State Association of Diabetes Educators, the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians, and the New Jersey Hospital Association.

And not too surprisingly, drug stores are also lining up to voice their support. The New Jersey Council of Chain Drug Stores and the New Jersey Pharmacist Association are proponents of the reform bill.

So who’s against it? So far there appears to be no organized or vocal opposition. No one shouting from the rooftops; no one calling in to talk radio to oppose it.

But the lack of opposition does not guarantee legislative enactment or a gubernatorial signature. And even if Gov. Christie signs it into law, there’s time for stalling.

A worrisome feature of the bill is that it will not take effect for 180 days, almost 6 months. And during that time, the State Board of Pharmacy — an office under the Attorney General — is “directed to adopt rules and regulations to carry out the provisions of the bill.”

Why any rules are needed is a mystery — and an opportunity for mischief. The bill is simple and self enforcing: No more than 10 syringes per customer, all syringes must be safely stored, no reseals allowed, used needles to be safely disposed of, and so on.

My fear is that we will see a repeat of the many delays that have plagued medical marijuana. The law was passed three years ago, yet marijuana is still not available to the chronic disease and pain sufferers who need it.

In the end, today’s vote, as crucial as it is, is not the end. It may be just a start of the struggle to consign this cruel, costly, and mindless policy to the dustbin of history. Which is exactly where it belongs.