MISSOURI may soon join a growing number of states to approve legislation that would make it legal for health clinics to provide free hypodermic needles to drug users to help stem the spread of infectious diseases and reduce health care costs.
The Missouri House overwhelmingly passed a bill last month that would exempt health clinics from penalties for distributing clean needles to drug users. House Bill 1620 would amend current state law that bans the possession of drug paraphernalia.
The state Senate should move quickly to concur with the House to give medical professionals another tool to help combat the spread of hepatitis C, HIV and other diseases through the sharing of dirty needles -- and potentially steer users toward rehabilitative services.
Stateline reported that a dozen states enacted laws in 2016 and 2017 that protect employees and clients of needle exchanges from existing drug paraphernalia laws that otherwise could be used to prosecute them for possessing a syringe. Missouri and Iowa are among five states considering similar legislation this year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says these programs have been shown to decrease needle sharing. A CDC report issued in 2016 showed that only about 1 in 10 people who used exchanges shared needles, compared with more than 40 percent who didn't use exchange programs.
Providing people who are already abusing intravenous drugs with the option of at least using a sterile needle when they shoot up might seem like enabling bad behavior, but experts argue that research and personal experience demonstrate that needle exchanges have played a significant role in infection prevention and have not led to an increase in drug use.
Furthermore, the human interaction involved in such programs might prompt some drug users to seek rehabilitation services if they develop a trusted relationship with health professionals.
"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," said state Rep. Craig Redmon, R-Canton, a member of the House Budget Committee and a supporter of HB 1620.
The Stateline report points out that unlike the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and previous drug epidemics, which were largely spawned in urban areas, the opioid epidemic is ensnaring people who live in smaller cities and rural communities, including in Northeast Missouri.
In addition to mounting overdose deaths, the report said these rural communities are experiencing unprecedented surges in hepatitis C infections and increasing threats of HIV/AIDS outbreaks.
Aside from the human toll, taxpayers are shouldering a growing financial burden. For example, treating a single case of hepatitis C -- which can cause cirrhosis, liver cancer or liver failure -- can cost more than $100,000. States generally bear much of the costs because most drug users have no insurance.
It's clear that the potential health benefits far outweigh concerns that a needle exchange program could enable drug use. Therefore, the Missouri Senate should follow the lead of the House and allow health clinics to distribute clean syringes.
It won't eliminate the scourge of drugs, but it's an important, common-sense step toward reducing its harmful impact.