A bill to allow California pharmacists to sell syringes without a prescription passed its first legislative hurdle Wednesday, but not before provoking unusually personal and emotional debate in the State Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
Twenty witnesses spoke in favor of the bill, including pharmacists, infectious disease specialists, AIDS activists, drug treatment providers and family members of people who died of AIDS. Studies have shown that providing clean needles reduces the risk of AIDS without increasing drug use.
"I have one brother dead from AIDS, another sick in bed from AIDS, and one out there right now shooting drugs," testified Dorsey Nunn, co-founder of Free At Last, a drug treatment program in East Palo Alto. "I can't talk him into treatment, even though I started the biggest drug treatment program in my county."
The issue of family resurfaced throughout the debate with two senators, Deborah Ortiz of Sacramento and Liz Figueroa of Fremont, both speaking of brothers that they had lost to heroin overdose. Senator Ortiz said that she had not intended to vote for the bill, but she was so moved by the testimony that now she would. She thanked Senator John Vasconcellos of San Jose for "having the courage to carry this incredibly important bill." The 9-2 vote, along party lines, moves the bill to Senate Appropriations for consideration.
In addition, Senators Figeroa and Ortiz called for future hearings on policies to fight addiction statewide.
"It's a long road to the Governor's desk," said Glenn Backes, health policy director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "If it were an easy issue, it would have been done 20 years ago. But it looks like the leadership is finally in place to prevail on this life-and-death issue."
Sharing contaminated syringes is linked to 19 percent of all AIDS cases in California. The state is one of six that require a prescription in order to purchase a syringe at a pharmacy. The others are New Jersey, Massachussetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. The bill requires no state expenditure of funds, because the burden of paying for sterile syringes is on the consumer.