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Law enforcement and drug users embrace needle bill

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Last Wednesday inside a Durham Fire Station auditorium, a beefy flank of police officers, deputy sheriffs and Duke University security personnel watched a woman in front of them play with needles.

"This is the part where I break out my bag of paraphernalia," said Tessie Castillo, allowing the contents of her satchel to spill onto a table, revealing syringes, a cooker, a tourniquet and other tools of the intravenous drug user's trade.

Castillo of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, a Durham-based public health advocacy group, was training law enforcement on how to avoid getting pricked by sharp objects during pat-downs and purse and car searches.

"Wanna see my crack pipe?" Castillo deadpanned, picking up a slender glass cylinder. "This one is very pretty. Lots of users have to rely on pens or rose stems. But I've got the hookup."

"You like your toys, don't you?" hooted an officer.

Last week the State Senate followed the House in passing House Bill 850. Under the measure, each time a law enforcement agent prepares to search a suspected drug user, the officer can ask whether the suspect has any needles. The suspect can then turn over any syringes without being charged for paraphernalia possession. The bill also applies to crack pipes.

The legislation was sponsored by four Republicans including Rep. John Faircloth, a former police chief from Guilford County. It's still awaiting Gov. Pat McCrory's signature.

The law does not apply to actual drugs, so if a syringe is loaded with, say, heroin, a suspect could still be charged with possessing an illegal substance. And the law kicks in only if an officer asks, which isn't mandatory.

Public health advocates like the bill because it could encourage drug users to carry clean needles rather than borrow dirty ones, which can lead to the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C.

But the payoff for police officers is perhaps bigger: the reduced threat of a needle stick, which can lead to tests, brutal treatment regimens and, at worst, HIV contraction.

"It's much better to protect an officer from a health problem than worry about the offense of possessing a needle," said Edmond W. Caldwell Jr., executive vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association.

Needle sticks among police officers happen more frequently than you might imagine. One in three law enforcement officials statewide has been pricked, and 28 percent have been stuck multiple times, according to the Harm Reduction Coalition, the prime champion of the bill. About 25,000 North Carolinians are active IV drug users, and more than half of them carry Hepatitis C, a disease that can live on a needle for a week.

For the officer, the remedy is often agonizing. Treatment, the side effects of which can be similar to chemotherapy, can cost police departments thousands of dollars and keep officers off duty for up to four months.

Midway through her presentation at the Durham firehouse, Castillo began peppering officers with questions about syringe searches. Do suspects tell the truth about whether they have needles on them? ("No.") What's it like to be pricked? ("Not fun.") What's the best way to confiscate a needle? ("Look inside before going digging.")

Eventually Castillo brought up the needle-stick bill, which at the time was still working its way through the Senate. The reaction was mostly one of intrigue. Many of the audience members weren't aware of it. A couple of them were skeptical.

"For me, I don't like it," said one police officer. "It would be weird that I couldn't charge them with intent. And the needle could show their intent."

"But it may be better for you in the long run," a colleague next to him suggested. Debate ensued.

For the Harm Reduction Coalition, getting law enforcement on board was a work-in-progress. Since its creation in 2004, the coalition has sought to reduce the number of overdose deaths and health risks encountered by drug users and other at-risk populations such as sex workers. In 2011 it tried to push a all-out needle decriminalization bill through the General Assembly with the sponsorship of six Democrats. It failed miserably, dying in committee. Legislators thought it was too soft on drugs.

Afterward, coalition members regrouped, realizing they needed a radically different approach to pass similar legislation through the GOP-led General Assembly. Eventually they pinpointed a solution that might have seemed unlikely: partnering with law enforcement. Drug users' issues, they reasoned, would need to become cops' issues.

After several months of track work, the result of the atypical partnership is the current bill, which could be termed "needle decriminalization lite."

"I tell cops across the state that our number one priority should always be making sure we come home at night," said Ronald Martin, a former New York City Police Department narcotics detective who was hired by the Harm Reduction Coalition to help push its message to law enforcement. "This might seem like a left-leaning cause. But not supporting this bill is like not wearing your bulletproof vest, or carrying a gun that doesn't fire."

Castillo says her group's goal is still full decriminalization of syringe possession or a needle-exchange measure similar to those that have been adopted in other states. But for now, baby steps with Republican allies will have to do, she says.

The coalition's recent successes, though small, have been rewarding. According to Castillo, North Carolina is the only state with a Republican supermajority legislature to have adopted any form of syringe decriminalization bill.

Back inside the firehouse, Castillo was wrapping up her presentation, explaining that the needle bill could lower law enforcement sticks by 66 percent, when her cell phone started buzzing.

"This could be related to the bill so I better answer it," she said.

"Put it on speaker!" said an officer.

"Hello?" said Castillo. "It passed? ... Cool ... OK, gotta go."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Sticking point."

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