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After Years Of Failure, Supporters Optimistic For Needle Exchange Pilot

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Credit Todd Huffman via Flickr

After years of trying, lawmakers are finding success with a plan to create a needle exchange pilot program in Miami Dade County.

There’s still almost a month left of session but the dead bills are beginning to pile up.  This week saw the door close, yet again, on a nearly decade’s long effort forLGBTcivil rights. 

But another long-awaited undertaking has reason for hope.

For years, Miami Democratic Senator Oscar Braynon has been pushing a pilot needle exchange program in Miami Dade County. 

“What the program does is it allows someone to bring a used needle or syringe and in return they get a clean needle back,” Braynon says.

His partner in the House, Katie Edwards (D-Sunrise) says with intravenous drug use growing, lawmakers need to ensure it doesn’t compound into an even more dire public health crisis.

“In Miami Dade County alone, one of the top five counties in Florida having the highest number of reported new HIV cases,” Edwards says.  “For 2014 we had 1,411 new cases alone for Miami Dade County.  Broward—my home county—993.  Orange—503 cases.”

So far, Braynon has done pretty well moving the measure through the Senate.  Last year and the year before he’s been able to shepherd it through committees and onto the floor.  But the matter hasn’t budged in the House.  Part of the reason is that as long as needle exchange has been around as a policy solution, there have been opponents criticizing it as an at least tacit approval of drug use.  But two things are different this year.

“Members that I’ve spoken to had this sentiment that this is not my issue, not my area,” Edwards explains.  “What changes when I’m able to say it’s happening in Manatee, it’s happening in Hillsborough, it’s happening in northwest Florida—in the panhandle, in the most rural areas.  Because as we all know we’re seeing an increase in drug use even in rural areas.”

The other is a greater emphasis on connecting participants with drug counseling and addiction services.  Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) says that’s what got her vote.

“One of the things that I want to point out to members who perhaps have some concern in that we are facilitating the use of heroin and drug addiction,” Harrell says, “there is a strong component in it that requires that drug abuse prevention and treatment counseling and referral services are part of this pilot project.”

She—and every other Republican save one—voted in favor of the measure at its second committee stop last Wednesday.  It’s got one last stop in the House and once again it’s waiting for a vote from the full Senate. 

The progress is almost too much Hansel Tookes.  He’s an internal medicine resident at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.  But back in 2009 he was a public health student conducting surveys of used syringes on Miami streets.  Later, as a medical student, he studied what dirty needle were costing his hospital.

“So what we did was we did a study where we looked back through the records at Jackson over the past year to see how many patients were hospitalized with bacterial infections that came from drug use,” Tookes explains, “and what we wanted to know is how much those preventable infections—easily preventable infections with needle exchange—cost our public hospital system over a year.”

“That figure was $11.4 million.”

Tookes has been lobbying for the pilot program since that first syringe survey, and now after seven years of work he’s understandably excited at what it could mean for his community.

“It’s just a wonderful opportunity,” Tookes says, “to do what’s best for a very vulnerable population of people and let them know that somebody cares about their life.”

“Because in my experience when we show these people that somebody cares about their life,” he explains, “we’re more likely to be able to get them clean and hopefully disease free.”

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