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Capital NY: Bill Would Decriminalize Syringe Possession

Intravenous drug users would be able to purchase as many clean needles as they need and carry them without fear of police harassment under a bill proposed by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and Senator Gustavo Rivera.

The bill, which would amend certain sections of the criminal and public health law, is a key recommendation of an anti-AIDS task force commissioned by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The task force’s ambitious goal is to limit the number of new AIDS cases to 750 per year by 2020. In 2013, there were 2,832 new cases statewide.

“We need to destigmatize and decriminalize the possession of syringes,” said Rivera, a Bronx Democrat. “What the bill does … is two things: legalize syringe possession and strengthens the syringe access program. It is common sense public policy.”

The legislators spoke of how important a step this was in reducing the number of people who contract the AIDS virus.

The new law would remove hypodermic needles and syringes from the category of drug-related paraphernalia, allow pharmacies to sell more than 10 needles at once and allow pharmacies to advertise the availability of clean syringes.

Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who carried a needle exchange bill for 10 years before it became law in 2000, said providing access to clean needles had long been a bipartisan issue “because it is smart public health policy.”

“We need a clean law on clean syringes,” he said.

The bill is also meant to address the concern advocates have that police are unduly harassing drug users who are seeking to exchange needles. This keeps dirty needles in circulation, they say, and keeps people from accessing wrap-around services that are offered at needle exchange sites.

“They may not be harassing that much but the fear is there because it has been placed there by NYPD,” said Terrell Jones, of Vocal-NY. “I’m tired of seeing people in my community suffer.”

Wayne Starks, a board member of Vocal-NY, a group that advocates for low-income people affected by H.I.V./AIDS, the drug war and mass incarceration, said that when he was an intravenous drug user he tried to stay hygienic.

He said he wiped his needles in alcohol and Clorox, but he couldn’t always get a clean needle.

He said he remembers heading toward a shooting gallery, an abandoned building lit only by candles. There were two cups and someone told him one cup had a clean needle and one cup had a used needle. They both looked dirty to Starks, he said, “but my addiction was so strong I couldn’t wait.”

Starks believes he contracted H.I.V. from that encounter and had clean needles been more readily available he might be virus free today.

“This bill will save lives,” he said. “And this bill will save money. Once you get AIDS, once you get Hep-C the state has got to carry you.”