Delaware: Legislature Finally OKs Needle Exchange Program

By a 23-15 House vote Thursday, the Delaware General Assembly passed a bill authorizing a pilot needle exchange program in Wilmington to help prevent blood-borne infections among intravenous drug users (IDUs). Delaware is one of two states without a program that permits IDUs to exchange dirty needles for clean ones or to buy syringes in pharmacies without a prescription. The other state is New Jersey.

Through 2004, 48 percent of people with AIDS in Delaware were either IDUs or their sexual partners, the fourth-highest in the nation, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. IDU-related HIV infection is Delaware's leading cause of AIDS.

The bill's passage in the House culminated a decade-long fight by Sen. Margaret Rose Henry (D-Wilmington East), whose district is a hot spot for AIDS. "It's the right thing for the people of Delaware," said Henry.

Though the bill passed the Senate 16-4 last year, it was stalled in the House by foes such as Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith (R-Brandywine Hundred), who contended the program would condone illegal drug use. But after discussions with the GOP caucus early Thursday afternoon, Smith acknowledged the bill would likely pass.

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner said she plans to sign the bill into law. "We've been working on this for a long time," she said. "We think it will make a difference for AIDS and the people of Delaware."

The five-year pilot program will cost $315,000 in its first year for a specially equipped van, supplies, and salaries for social workers and counselors.