A legislative proposal in Albany to reduce stigma, curb police harassment of drug users, and improve access to clean needles demonstrated broad support at a January 15 press conference in Manhattan.
State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who represents part of the Bronx, and Chelsea Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, both Democrats, discussed legislation they will introduce that would completely decriminalize syringe possession and lift restrictions on their sale in pharmacies. Distribution of clean needles to drug injectors in New York City has helped bring new HIV diagnoses among that group down from thousands annually to 89 in 2013.
Among those on hand with Rivera and Gottfried was Tracie Gardner, who has served as co-director of policy at the Legal Action Center and last month was named an assistant secretary of health by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The press conference came less than a week before the governor was set to announce his fiscal year 2016 budget, the details of which were expected to provide the first indication of his reaction to the recommendations of a task force he named last fall to work on the state Plan to End AIDS by 2020. Cuomo first endorsed that plan — which aims to bend the curve on new infections so that the epidemic begins to die out — at last June’s LGBT Pride Parade in Manhattan.
Currently, roughly 3,000 individual are infected each year in the state, and the plan envisions seroconversions to fall to 750 or less by 2020.
Cuomo convened the task force to offer ideas for a soup-to-nuts plan to ramp up HIV services, a key goal of which is reaching “persons with HIV who remain undiagnosed and linking them to health care.” When adhered to properly, treatment makes an HIV-positive person effectively non-infectious.
The governor’s support for the plan has energized activists, and many are eager to build on the past success of syringe exchange programs by opening up access and shutting down remaining legal hurdles. Despite the proven efficacy of needle exchange, a good number of neighborhoods in New York City have no programs and many counties and cities upstate offer minimal or no services.
As evidence of the bipartisan support for clean needle access, Brooklyn State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a Democrat, pointed to the legislation enacted in 2000 with the support of Republican Governor George Pataki that authorized the over-the-counter sale of sterile syringes. Those sales, however, are limited to 10 per transaction, and purchasers still face police surveillance and hostility since criminal penalties for needle possession did not change.
Though arrests declined, “the fear is still there,” said Terrell Jones of VOCAL-NY, a group that represents low income New Yorkers affected by HIV, the drug war, and incarceration.
Rivera and Gottfried said they are circulating drafts of their legislation, which is likely to be finalized in February.
“Syringe decriminalization will make people healthy and strengthen access to needles,” said Rivera.
Gottfried touted the impact greater clean needle access has already had.
“It has saved tens of thousands of lives of drug users and protected the sex partners of users and their children,” he said. “It is not as effective as it could be if the police are trailing users and arresting them. It is similar to the problems caused by police arresting sex workers and seizing their condoms.”
Gardner, the health department appointee, who served on the Plan to End AIDS task force, said the bill benefits everybody. Arresting those seeking clean needles, she said, shows “our lack of value for drug users’ lives and that we don’t care about the safety of our community.”
Throughout the press conference, advocates emphasized their personal commitment to helping drug users. Jennifer Flynn, executive director of VOCAL-NY, talked about how as a child she became close to a cousin taken in by her family after his parents threw him out for his drug use. He died of AIDS at a young age.
VOCAL-NY’s Jones recalled having no father in his life and watching the man who played that role, a needle user, die. The memory of being told he could not hug the older man caused Jones’ voice to crack years later.
In an email message, Tracy Swan, the hepatitis/ HIV project director at the Treatment Action Group, said removing the 10-needle purchase limit and the criminal penalties was “CRITICAL” in preventing hepatitis C as well as HIV since “shared, unsterilized equipment is the MAJOR mode of HCV transmission.”
Gottfried called the bill he and Rivera are shaping “a clean law on clean needles.”