My Turn: Additional, reasonable regulations needed with needle exchange to preserve safety for all

  • MASS

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A June SJC ruling established that no current law regulated needle distribution. I proposed an ordinance to regulate needle distribution in Greenfield. Tapestry Health has repeatedly affirmed that this ordinance does not affect their exchange program in any way. What does it do? It allows distribution of hypodermic needles only by pharmacies and Board of Health approved programs. It requires all who distribute needles to have an appropriate sharps collection point. Finally, it prevents discriminating against people based on their use of needles, thus giving greater access to needles and safe disposal for people with diabetes. It does not limit in any way the number of programs which can gain Board of Health approval.

The purpose of this ordinance is to ensure that the only people distributing needles in Greenfield are those who can give appropriate advice on proper disposal and provide a safe location for that disposal. No one has to explain the crises of improperly disposed needles in this community. We find them in our parks, playgrounds, sporting fields, rivers and aligning the streets in residential neighborhoods. Improperly disposed of sharps present a very dangerous hazard to those who encounter them. Not only can they transmit HIV and Hepatitis C (the very reason needle exchange programs promote clean needle exchange), they can also contain lethal narcotics. A prick from one of these needles can cause a lifetime of sickness or eminent death.

On June 23, a 10-year-old boy name Alton in Miami came into contact with a hypodermic needle containing fentanyl and died. When asked where the boy came into contact with the deadly narcotic, State Attorney Fernandez Rundle stated, “We believe that it was somewhere between the park or pool or sidewalk.” In April of 2013, The Journal of Public Health reported that from 2001 to 2008, 16,677 community-acquired, non-occupational needle stick injuries were treated in the U.S. This is a real problem.

Opponents of this ordinance point to all the good things that the needle exchange accomplishes. This ordinance prevents none of them, but requires that they have reasonable oversight from the Board of Health to ensure that those programs are conducted in such a way as to have those positive outcomes and avoid negative ones like improper sharps disposal. In Greenfield today, an 18 to 20 year old cannot purchase cigarettes because we do not trust him or her to make good decisions for themselves or those around them. However, that same 18 to 20 year old can start and run a completely unsupervised or regulated needle exchange program. They do not need to have a safe sharps disposal plan; they do not need to provide advice on proper disposal of used needles, they do not need to provide advice on where someone can obtain treatment if they want it. Worse, that person doesn’t even need to know the answers to provide it to those who ask. Nothing even requires that the needles that the 18 to 20 year old distributes be clean.

Some people are concerned that the Board of Health may be too strict in the regulations that they establish. Is the answer overly strict regulations, no regulation at all? Of course not. If regulation is inappropriate, people can make that case to the Board of Health and if they do not receive adequate response, they can go to the mayor who appoints them. If the mayor does not take appropriate steps, they can elect a new mayor. Imagine if we removed all regulation in areas where some people thought regulation was too strict? We would not have a Department of Public Health, Building Inspector, Conservation Commission, Zoning Board, Planning Board, License Commission, Historic Commission, etc. Government is in the business of setting reasonable regulation. This ordinance, aside from requiring those involved in needle distribution to have an onsite sharps disposal container, leaves all regulations to the Board of Health, which is best equipped to determine what is reasonable and what is not.

Some are upset that even though the Greenfield Board of Health has approved a needle exchange, it has not found a property owner who will house the program. While I understand that is frustrating, that is not caused by this ordinance or even the Board of Health. This is not a zoning ordinance and does not regulate where a needle exchange program or pharmacy can be located.

I understand that the population dealing with addiction needs protection from blood borne pathogens, but they are not the only population that needs protection. Our children, our pets and even unsuspecting adults need to be protected from improperly disposed of sharps. Without this ordinance, Greenfield will have more regulations on rolling papers, dogs, outdoor wood stoves, bars, signs and tanning beds than we will have on hypodermic needles. Why? Because we will have none. Reasonable regulations work.

Isaac Mass is the Vice President of the Town Council, and a criminal defense attorney working with recovering and active drug users.