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Lawmakers override needle veto

Activists say move will slow spread of HIV

By Richard Nangle, Worcester TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF

Supporters of over-the-counter syringe sales expect the number of HIV transmissions connected to intravenous drug use to drop now that Massachusetts has joined 47 other states where the practice is legal.

State lawmakers last week overrode a Gov. Mitt Romney veto of the long-debated bill, which opponents criticized for putting the state in the position of condoning intravenous drug use.

“This particular bill, now that it’s the law, will, in fact, slow down the spread of HIV,” said Edla L. Bloom, executive director of AIDS Project Worcester. “There will be tangible numbers. People that are getting infected from injection drug use, or relationships with people who are injection drug users, those numbers will go down as they have in other states.”

Buying hypodermic needles in Massachusetts has long required a prescription.

The fight over the needle bill was an offshoot of a contentious debate over clean needle exchange that in recent years has visited many cities in Massachusetts. Supporters of needle-exchange programs point to Boston and Cambridge — both have been distributing needles to addicts for more than a decade — which boast of the lowest rates of injection-related HIV transmissions in the state.

The HIV service community was virtually united in support of distributing needles to addicts who otherwise would be prone to sharing needles and spreading the disease. But in many cases it came up against unwavering political opposition.

District 4 City Councilor Barbara G. Haller has been one of Worcester’s loudest voices against providing addicts with easy access to clean syringes, arguing that advocates of such policy do more harm than good.

Ms. Haller said government should be aggressively reaching out to addicts with information about the dangers of drug use, information that also should be made available to the public at-large and children. Drug use, she said, ought to be taboo.

“This over the counter stuff violates that taboo,” she said.

In the wake of the more than two-thirds override vote by both the Senate and House, AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts Executive Director Rebecca Haag said the result would be lives that are saved, a reduction in new infections and millions in savings for the state in health care costs.

State data show 39 percent of people with HIV/AIDS in Massachusetts infected directly or indirectly by a dirty needle.

In vetoing the Pharmacy Access bill, Mr. Romney said unintended consequences could outweigh any benefits of passage.

Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey raised the possibility of an increase in the careless discarding of needles. She also said new cases of AIDS and HIV blamed on shared needles fell from an annual percentage of 32.8 in 1997 to 15.7 in 2004. Meanwhile, she said, the number of people hospitalized annually because of heroin use nearly doubled in that time period and the annual number of fatal overdoses more than tripled.

Ms. Bloom said Ms. Healey’s comments surprised her.

“I don’t know where she is getting this information, because it’s completely inaccurate,” Ms. Bloom said.

Ms. Bloom said a proposal to place drop boxes for used needles throughout Worcester would complement the needle bill.

Ms. Haller, however, isn’t so sure. And as chair of the City Council’s health committee, she will have a lot of say over what happens to the Operation Yellow Box proposal.

“To target five areas of the city for these boxes, I think, is inappropriate,” she said. “I have yet to be convinced that we can encourage addicts now leaving syringes in our parks and flower pots and bushes that they should now leave them in a yellow box. Let’s put them everywhere, if that’s what we’re about.”

Ms. Bloom said many of those needles are discarded improperly simply because up to now they have been illegal and addicts could not risk being caught with them.