A sea of red shirts and decorated banners swarmed outside of the Legislature on April 13 as the people rallied for lawmakers to pass a bill that would decriminalize certain uses of syringes.
House Bill 601 has been proposed in an attempt to reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. Currently in North Carolina, the use, possession, manufacture or delivery of injection equipment is unlawful without a prescription. The new bill would change this, in hopes that injection drug users will use clean needles, thus reducing the risk of transmitting blood-borne diseases.
One of the main goals that supporters hope to achieve through the measure is a decrease in the number of law enforcement officers who get stuck by a dirty needle from users who are hesitant to reveal that they have a syringe.
According to the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), a third of law enforcement officers in North Carolina are stuck by a needle at some point in their career.
Lisa Hazirjian, policy and advocacy coordinator for the North Carolina AIDS Action Network, said that 28 percent of police officers get more than one needle stick in the course of their career.
"That needle could have HIV in it and it could have hepatitis in it, and a needle is one of the few places that HIV can stay alive for a while because it is sort of a little incubator for it," Hazirjian said. "It presents a real threat to law enforcement."
Robert Childs, executive director of the NCHRC, said that states that have already decriminalized syringes have seen a 66 percent reduction in needle sticks.
The idea behind the bill, according to Hazirjian, is for people to be able to reveal they have a needle without risking arrest. She also hopes that the bill would encourage people to buy clean syringes, rather than reusing them.
"That has huge added benefits beyond law enforcement, as well for slowing the spread of HIV, because right now we're in a situation where people share needles because they're afraid of being found with needles on them," Hazirjian said.
North Carolina is home to 50,000 injection drug users, the NCHRC said.
According to a 2005 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an intravenous drug user injects himself or herself an estimated 1,000 times a year. That same report concluded that syringe exchange programs—which are different from what is being proposed in North Carolina—do not encourage drug use, nor do they attract first-time drug users.
If passed, the bill would allow users to buy clean syringes from a pharmacy. This has concerned the bill's critics, who contend it would cause an increase in illegal activities.
Phyllis Stephens, public information director for the Wake County Sheriff's Office, said that Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison opposes the bill. She added that all other sheriffs also oppose it.
"[Sheriff Harrison] does not see a need for anyone having syringes unless that person is on medication prescribed by a doctor," Stephens said. "He feels this bill would just open the door for other illegal activities."
Childs said that the NCHRC has mostly seen support for the bill, including from some other law enforcement officers.
"We only seem to get opposition from people who are elected in the sheriff's body," Childs said. "The only thing this does is save society money, prevent HIV, prevent hepatitis and prevent law enforcement sticks."
Although Sheriff Harrison opposes the bill, Stephens said that he is concerned for his officers who have to search drug users who have syringes on them.
Both Childs and Hazirjian, however, believe that providing easier access to clean syringes actually helps people get treatment. "People are less afraid to come out that they are doing something, which leads them to more access and care," Childs said.
Another concern that was raised in the press conference on April 13 was the fiscal effect of the bill. According to Hazirjian, decriminalizing syringes could save taxpayer dollars. She points out that the fewer officers who get stuck, the fewer taxpayer dollars go toward medical bills for officers, who immediately get post-exposure treatment for HIV upon being stuck with a needle.
"The assumption is you got a needle stick, you've been exposed to HIV and that means months and months of taking a whole course of expensive medications that also can be really debilitating," Hazirjian said. "You and I both want for our cops to have that health care, but it's better still if those cops never get a needle stick in the first place. That's one immediate thing that for sure would be a financial savings of decriminalizing syringes."
The bill, co-sponsored by Democrats state Rep. Verla Insko of Orange County and Pricey Harrison of Guilford County, is in the Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House Committee; no vote has been scheduled.
"There are really only benefits to this. You know it's just syringe possession being illegal doesn't do anything to prevent the spread of HIV and it doesn't really do anything to deter people from using syringes for illegal purposes," Hazirjian said. "What it does is it drives those people underground, where they can't get care, they can't get treatment and the virus spreads further."