Florida Decriminalizes Needle Exchanges
On June 26, Florida lawmakers and governor Ron DeSantis legalized (decriminalized) the establishment of syringe exchanges throughout the state, which will allow a number of counties to reduce disease and help those otherwise targeted for drug crime charges to get the care that they need. Specifically, syringe exchanges have been listed as helping to prevent Hepatitis B and C, HIV/AIDS, and heart valve and bloodstream infections.
Still, even though the new law decriminalizes syringe exchanges throughout Florida, each county lawmaker will need to individually authorize local programs in order to get things moving and make a difference, especially for the many Floridians who are addicted to drugs such as fentanyl and heroin. Regardless, in passing the bill, Florida has taken an important step in promoting harm reduction rather than prison time for those suffering from drug addiction, especially given that Florida has the highest rate of HIV infection in the country.
Why Are Needle Exchanges Important?
Needle exchanges allow people to turn in used syringes for clean ones in order to prevent disease exchange. In addition, they also test for a number of diseases, such as HIV, and treat wounds, as well as connect people with shelters and drug treatment programs. They also hand out Narcan, which reverses the effects of opioid overdoses, saving thousands of lives every year. Many people have credited the facilities with turning their lives around.
Prior to the bill passing, there was only one location (pilot program) where the practice was legal in Florida. As a result, efforts to provide clean needles to drug addicts happened quietly and out of sight. However, now, the program can be expanded beyond Miami-Dade and allow the service to be provided statewide; as long as county governments agree and move forward in setting up their own locations.
It is important that proactive actions be taken by legislatures like this because legal issues make it difficult for advocates to offer needle exchanges given Florida’s criminal laws, which make it illegal to carry around needles to hand out without having a prescription. In 2016, the Florida state legislature gave Miami-Dade County temporary permission to operate a pilot program, but kept it illegal to operate these exchanges elsewhere in Florida. Over the last several years, a number of legislators have expressed concerns about legalizing the practice, concerned that they would be encouraging people to commit drug crimes.
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