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Needle exchange bill gets backing in Concord

State House Bureau

February 07. 2017 10:01PM

CONCORD — As the state continues to grapple with a relentless opioid epidemic, advocates at a public hearing said a statewide needle exchange program is critical to prevent the spread of hepatitis C and HIV among drug users and limit the number of dirty needles discarded in public places.

House Bill 610, heard Tuesday before the House Committee on Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs, requires the Commissioner of Health and Human Services to establish guidelines for the operation of needle exchange programs in New Hampshire.

The Senate defeated a similar bill last year, deciding instead to create a study commission that could set the stage for a needle exchange program to be approved this year.

“These programs are vital to protect against blood-borne diseases,” said retired doctor Joseph Hannon, a former state representative from Lee who introduced a needle exchange bill last year that passed the House by a three-to-one margin.

“These programs have not been shown to cause new (opioid) usage. If anything, crime can go down,” he said, citing studies conducted in Baltimore after a needle exchange was introduced there.

Hannon said the initiative would not cost the state any money, as federal grants are available, along with donations from individuals and charitable groups.

Discarded needles have been a problem in several cities and towns, according to Michele Merritt, policy director at New Futures, the nonprofit that coordinates many of the state’s substance abuse counseling and treatment programs.

She cited reports by Manchester police that 540 dirty needles were taken off city streets, parks and sidewalks in one year.

“If we don’t have a place for people to get clean syringes and to dispose of them safely and legally, we are going to continue to have a great problem,” Hannon said. “A used syringe can kill you, and we need to get them off the street.”

Rebecca Ewing, a retired obstetrician/gynecologist and co-chairman of New Hampshire's Prenatal Substance Exposure Task Force, also spoke in favor of the bill as a way of reducing diseases like HIV and hepatitis C among pregnant intravenous drug users.

She said of the 11,000 babies born in the past year, more than 10 percent have been exposed to opiates.

No one spoke in opposition to the bill, which will have to be matched up with similar legislation that is working its way through the Senate.

Attorney Elizabeth Sargent, representing the state Chiefs of Police Association, was present but did not testify. She said law enforcement does have concerns, particularly about any provision that would prevent police from making drug arrests if someone is found in possession of a needle with trace amounts of opiates.

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