State lawmakers likely to push legislation to pave way for needle exchanges

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DUBUQUE, Iowa (KCRG) -- An Iowa State Representative intends to fight for clean needle exchange programs this legislative session as a way to combat the opioid epidemic.

Needle exchanges, or professionally referred to as Syringe Service Programs (SSP), provide sterile needles to those who use drugs.

Mercy Turning Point Director Malissa Sprenger explained, "it can basically be a community based approach to providing individuals sterile syringes and a way for us to facilitate the disposal of syringes that might be dirty or contaminated.”

“To prevent the spread of infectious disease, to help engage individuals into treatment, and really just to positively promote better health for our community," Sprenger said.

One-hundredth District State Representative Chuck Isenhart, a Democrat, said he and other lawmakers want to change Iowa law to decriminalize needles. It's something lawmakers attempted to do last legislative session in 2018.

He said decriminalization of needles is needed so, "If needles are distributed as part of a public health initiative, that that’s not considered an infraction of the law on the part of the health care provider and that the person using such needles are not necessarily going to be prosecuted because of that.”

In essence, it allows for communities to legally begin Syringe Service Programs.

On establishing those programs, Isenhart said, “what it will take is close coordination between health care providers and law enforcement in each community.”

Health care providers at Mercy are fully on board.

"We are advocating for this, we will be lobbying for this in the next legislative session," Sprenger said.

She said not only will it keep the public safe by disposing of contaminated needles properly, it will also prevent the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C and other diseases.

"Here in Dubuque, we have had a spike in viral Hepatitis C. Oftentimes these patients do not have funding to pay for medication to treat that condition. When you play that out long term, individuals end up having liver failure," Sprenger explained. "Last year the state of Iowa Medicaid enterprise paid for 49 liver transplants in our state alone at the cost of $2 million a piece."

However, the Dubuque Police Department is on the fence.

Chief Mark Dalsing said he can see the benefits from a health care perspective.

"I don’t think there’s any way you can deny the medical necessity," he said. "The increases in Hepatitis C and HIV, you know, it’s pretty obvious. The data is there to show that we have to do something. We can’t just sit back and let things go the way they are."

He isn't sure, though, how a Syringe Service Program would logistically work for officers.

"To decriminalize it, you’re kind of going across the board saying its a free pass for everybody, even the folks that aren't even thinking about trying to follow the service program," he said.

"How do you differentiate a syringe service needle versus one you stole from grandma’s diabetic kit," Dalsing questioned.

It could also impede police investigations, according to Dalsing.

He said if needles are decriminalized, investigators might have a harder time taking down drug dealers. They often will get information from people who have been charged for having paraphernalia, according to Dalsing.

"Somebody gets caught with a needle, a dope pipe, whatever, some simple paraphernalia, maybe they're already on probation for something else, they might be more willing to cooperate," he explained.

"It (decriminalization) is going to handcuff us a little bit on that, so we definitely have a concern about losing that," he said.

For those reasons, the police department is currently not on board.

"Until we see what the final language of a bill or law might look like, we can’t get too crazy about it," Dalsing said. "We voiced our concerns to our legislatures and said you fix these things, you might be able to get law enforcement support, but right now we’re going to sit on the fence and watch.”

Isenhart also called on the Dubuque City Council to support and begin directing agencies in Dubuque to work on establishing an SSP.

Councilman Brett Shaw said he fully supports these programs.

"I don't think that anything should stop us from planning and advocating for this right now," he said.

However, he said he doesn't have many options for making it happen.

"At this point, I don't have the ability just to insert it (the topic of SSP) as an agenda item to force discussion," he said. "I'm trying to figure out how to do that."

If all else fails, he plans to bring this up in the city's next goal planning session, which isn't until August of 2019. Shaw realizes that's not ideal.

"Otherwise we'll have to wait until next August, and then that wouldn't even become effective until maybe the beginning of the next fiscal year," he said.