January 20, 2010
Legislation President Obama signed into law in mid-December allows some federal money to be used for needle-exchange programs. Up until now, the nation's patchwork of NEPs has been supported by local and state jurisdictions or private entities.
"Science has shown these programs reduce HIV transmission and do not increase use of illegal drugs," said Nikki Kay, a CDC spokesperson. In addition, NEPs offer addicts a link to substance abuse treatment, education, behavioral intervention programs, HIV testing and, if needed, treatment, Kay and others said.
Nonetheless, state drug paraphernalia laws prevent operating an NEP legally in Florida. Making NEPs legitimate would require Florida legislators to carve out a public health exemption to these laws, said Susan Smith, press secretary for the state Department of Health.
"You'd have to have that willingness," said Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition in New York City. "One of the problems with Florida is it's not had that willingness. It's politically conservative." "You need people in health departments to stand up and say, 'It's the right thing to do,'" he said.
Florida's Department of Health is studying whether to recommend a change to the law. This would need to occur in collaboration with the state's drug director, said Tom Liberti, chief of the department's HIV/AIDS bureau.
"Anything that will reduce the rate of HIV -- and that's one of the activities that can do that -- should be considered," said Bob Rihn, executive director of Tri-County Human Services in Lakeland. "It can work as long as it's effectively planned out and strategically instituted."
Flashlight of Hope in Miami operates as a semi-underground NEP, receiving condoms and brochures from health officials. Its director, George Gibson, said he pays for the sterile syringes and other supplies on his own. When the police see Gibson, "They see I have the condoms and brochures to hand out along with the syringes; they see I'm doing education," he said.