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Clean needles were exchanged for used ones near a shelter in Cambridge.
Clean needles were exchanged for used ones near a shelter in Cambridge. (John Bohn/ Globe Staff/ File 1997)

House votes to allow sale of syringes

Foes see state encouraging use of drugs

The Massachusetts House voted yesterday to legalize over-the-counter sale of hypodermic needles to curb the spread of HIV and other blood-borne infections, potentially setting up a political showdown with Governor Mitt Romney over whether the bill will save lives or promote drug use.

The controversial measure, which would bring Massachusetts in line with 47 other states that allow syringes to be sold without a prescription, has long been championed by public health advocates, infectious disease doctors, and substance abuse specialists, who argue that it would vastly reduce incidence of AIDS, hepatitis C, and other diseases spread through the sharing of needles.

''This legislation is long overdue in this Commonwealth," Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill, said on the House floor. ''As soon as this legislation passes, it will save lives."

But it drew opposition from several-dozen other lawmakers, who said the change in state law would essentially encourage people to use drugs by making it easy for them to purchase needles at drugstores across the state.

The House passed the measure, 115-37, after almost three hours of passionate debate. It now goes to the Senate.

Representatives of Senate President Robert E. Travaglini's office could not be reached for comment last night.

But Senator Susan C. Fargo, a Lincoln Democrat and cochairwoman of the Joint Committee on Public Health, said she's optimistic her colleagues in the Senate will approve the bill.

''I don't think people should be afraid of it," she said. ''I am delighted it's moving forward."

The state Department of Public Health backs the bill, but Romney does not, saying he believes that allowing access to needles will facilitate drug use by addicts.

Romney spokeswoman Julie Teer declined to say whether the governor would veto the measure if it reaches his office.

''The governor has expressed his opposition to the legislation," Teer said in an e-mail. ''When the bill reaches his desk, he will give it a full review."

The bill would allow anyone 18 or older to purchase a syringe from a pharmacy without a prescription.

It also would decriminalize possession of a hypodermic needle, which is a misdemeanor, and require pharmacists to hand out information about treatment programs and about proper use and disposal of syringes to needle-buyers.

Supporters cited a litany of statistics in making their case. Koutoujian said that more than 39 percent of all people living with HIV or AIDS in Massachusetts were infected because they or their partners used a dirty needle.

The state has the ninth-highest rate of AIDS infection by needle use in the country, he said.

Supporters, who included several House Republicans, acknowledged during yesterday's debate that the bill would not solve the problem of drug abuse in Massachusetts, which is particularly acute in urban neighborhoods such as Charlestown and South Boston where heroin use is high.

But the supporters framed the legislation as one important way to address a public health issue that affects not just drug users but their partners, family members, and others in their communities.

''I don't know what the answer is to the war on drugs, but I do know one thing," said Representative Eugene L. O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat. ''If one person can be saved by not getting hepatitis or not getting AIDS . . . that's a pretty positive message to send."

O'Flaherty, who spoke at length yesterday about drug abuse in neighborhoods he represents, was one of several lawmakers who said they initially had reservations about legalizing needles sales, but had been swayed after seeing firsthand how disease spread by intravenous drug use has ravaged lives in their districts.

Representative Brian P. Wallace, a Boston Democrat, explained that three years ago he would have thrown someone out of his office who suggested the state needed the bill. ''Well, we do need it," he said yesterday. ''The kids who are dying in my community need it."

The bill is also backed by four district attorneys, including Martha Coakley of Middlesex County and Daniel F. Conley of Suffolk County, who testified at a legislative hearing in the spring.

A representative of Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole also testified in support of the bill.

Opponents said yesterday that the House was making a grave misjudgment.

''I cannot believe that the people in Massachusetts are listening to this garbage that is being touted at this microphone," said Representative Philip Travis, a Rehoboth Democrat, arguing that the Legislature is effectively sanctioning drug use. ''My God, what does this say to the young people?"

An answer was proposed by Representative Elizabeth Poirier.

''I wonder what kind of message we're sending to 18-year-olds and older, that it is illegal to use drugs, but it's perfectly all right to go in and buy a clean needle with which to do it?" said Poirier, a North Attleborough Republican. ''I think this is one of the most convoluted things I've ever heard."

But supporters say that every state but New Jersey and Delaware has passed a similar law and that studies have shown a drop in transmission of disease by needles. Connecticut and Rhode Island, for example, both saw transmission decline significantly in the years after they enacted similar legislation, according to Koutoujian's office.

A few communities in the state, including Boston and Cambridge, have adopted needle-exchange programs to combat the spread of disease, but supporters of the House bill argue the problem requires a statewide solution.

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.

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