HANNIBAL, Mo. -- A bill passed by the Missouri House and awaiting action by the Senate would make it legal for health clinics to provide free hypodermic needles to drug users.
Some clinics already pass out clean syringes to intravenous drug users in an effort to prevent the spread of hepatitis C, HIV and other diseases through the sharing of dirty needles. However, such needle exchanges have been treading in murky legal waters because a state law currently bans possession of drug paraphernalia.
HB 1620, which was approved by the House on Feb. 15, would amend the law to exempt health clinics from any penalties for distributing clean needles to drug users.
State Rep. Craig Redmon, R-Canton, was one of 135 House members voting to approve the bill, which is now awaiting consideration by the Senate. Redmon feels it makes sense to let clinics provide clean needles to drug users.
"I don't want to encourage illegal drug use, but at the same time I know it's going on," he said.
If clinics aren't allowed to dispense clean needles to drug users, then "the possibility of them ending up in the emergency room with hepatitis C, or something else, increases so much," he said. "It just costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars to take care of these people because none of them have health insurance. They just turn out to be a burden on the state."
Redmon, a member of the House Budget Committee, thinks the revised law not only will end up saving the state money, but it also might prompt some drug users to seek rehabilitation services if they develop a trusted relationship with health professionals.
"If we've got the opportunity to get them into rehabilitation, we need to take that," he said.
"If they keep using needles, and sharing needles, they never are exposed to the possibility of getting rehabilitated. Whereas if they come in there (to a needle exchange), they've at least got that opportunity," he said.
"We don't want illegal drug use, but at the same time this may be our best chance to save these people -- and save the state money in the long run because of the medical expenses they incur."
A pharmacist who works at the Hannibal Free Clinic, which serves low-income and uninsured clients, sees some merit in the proposed new law.
"If we don't provide clean needles, then they could use dirty needles from their neighbor or their friend," said the pharmacist, who didn't want to be identified.
The pharmacist noted that some former drug users don't want to have easy access to free, clean needles.
"We've had patients in the past actually specifically ask us that we don't give them syringes because they don't want the temptation," the pharmacist said.
When deciding how best to administer insulin injections to former drug users with diabetes, the pharmacist said the clinic will usually opt to give the patient an insulin pen needle to inject the medication rather than a conventional syringe with a vial of insulin. That way, a syringe "isn't even around them."
Republican Rep. Holly Rehder, the sponsor of HB 1620, said needle exchanges have been proven "to reduce drug use and also to protect our communities from spreading diseases."
In a report released in 2016, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that only about 1 in 10 people who used exchanges shared syringes, compared with more than 40 percent who didn't use the programs.
The proposed Missouri law, however, has some skeptics. One of them is Republican Rep. Shane Roden, a paramedic and firefighter. He questions how effective the programs are at fighting drug misuse.
"We're not fixing the problem," Roden said. "We're just creating Band-Aids."
The Associated Press contributed this report.