Differing implementation of local needle exchange programs giving lawmakers pause

Local officials expressed differing approaches Friday to implementation of the needle exchange programs through the anti-heroin bill passed during the 2015 session, giving some lawmakers concerns about the way the law is being interpreted.

In a meeting of the Senate Bill 192 (anti-heroin bill) Implementation Oversight Committee Friday morning, legislators heard testimony from local officials about some of the more controversial aspects of the legislation.

Senate Bill 192, the compromise bill that passed in the final hours of the 2015 session, included tougher penalties for traffickers, the ability for local governments to set up needle exchange programs, increased accessibility of the overdose-countering drug naloxone to first responders and other medical professionals, a Good Samaritan provision and funding mechanisms for treatment programs across the state.

The local governments already setting up the needle exchange programs discussed their strategies Friday. As expected, urban areas are moving faster toward implementing needle exchanges, but rural areas are starting to look into them as well. Louisville health department officials told lawmakers their program has seen 100 participants in two weeks with 20 people voluntarily tested for HIV and nine individuals referred to treatment. Because of these numbers, and the fact that participants meet with a certified drug and alcohol counselor, the officials said the program is working to really help people.

However, the fact that the local exchange is distributing needles to individuals without having them turn in any old dirty needles defeats the purpose of the “exchange,” according to some lawmakers. Some on the committee expressed deep concerns about these local programs not doing a one for one exchange and/or not requiring any dirty needles in exchange for the clean ones provided by the local government.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel also noted that the way the law is written explicitly calls for local “exchanges,” not distributions, and expressed concerns that some of these programs could be operating outside of the law.

Louisville health officials stated that they believe their program is saving lives and stated that the issue of these diseases spreading has come from people sharing needles, implying that some of the individuals coming in may not even have one to give. The officials said they were concerned that requiring a one for one exchange would diminish their ability to help people in need and that over time it could become a one for one exchange but it takes time to achieve.

Legislators asked the local programs to continue to monitor their data on how many needles are going out versus coming in so they can further assess the situation.

Another issue discussed at the meeting was the Good Samaritan provision of the law. Legislators heard testimony from people on both sides of the issue. Proponents argue that they believe the provision saves lives while others expressed concerns about the broad language contained in the bill.

The committee also discussed the distribution of funds appropriated through the anti-heroin bill, which Justice Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown detailed during a meeting of the Judiciary Committee earlier this month.

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