Sacramento--The California state legislature is poised to send a bill to Governor Gray Davis that will allow adults to purchase up to 30 syringes without a prescription in order to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. The bill passed today -- SB 774 -- was overhauled to specifically meet the stated objections of the Governor in his veto of similar legislation last year. It is uncertain, however, whether he will sign a bill supported by all leading health associations, but opposed by some law enforcement groups.
According to state estimates, syringe sharing among injection drug users causes 1,000 to 1,500 new HIV infections each year in California, and an additional 5,000 cases of the potentially deadly liver disease hepatitis C. Evaluations from states that allow syringe sale have consistently found that allowing adults to purchase syringes reduces the rates of disease without increasing rates of drug use, drug injection or crime. California is one of only five states that requires a prescription to purchase sterile syringes.
Today, the Assembly passed the revised SB 774 by John Vasconcellos of Santa Clara by a margin of 41 to 31, picking up support from 40 Democrats and one Republican -- physician Keith Richman of Simi Valley. Counting on a quick turnaround in the Senate, which passed an earlier version of the bill, Senator Vasconcellos plans to have the bill on the Governor's desk by early next week.
"This measure, which allows adults to be responsible for protecting their own health and the health of others, is even more critical now, as we see local and state budgets for healthcare and drug treatment slashed," said Vasconcellos. "If the Governor signs SB 774, we will save thousands of lives and millions of dollars."
Supporters of the bill include: the California Nurses' Association, Kaiser Permanente, Congress of California Seniors, California Pharmacists' Association, gay and lesbian groups, AIDS service organizations, drug treatment providers, major retail chains and unions. An informational website has been established that allows people to send a letter to the governor supporting SB 774, www.HelpStopAIDS.com
In his veto message last year, Governor Davis expressed concerns that allowing adults to purchase syringes would undermine the state's commitment to drug treatment, that the pharmacies would operate without adequate local government supervision, and that it might result in more dirty syringes being discarded. All of these issues have been addressed in today's bill.
Senator Vasconcellos convened a series of working meetings with specialists from local governments, waste management, and disease control to craft proposals that would improve recovery and destruction of used syringes. The meetings yielded a multi-faceted plan to improve syringe recovery and disposal, including a mandate on pharmacies to either take back syringes or provide syringe disposal containers; and authorization for local governments to add home-generated sharps waste to existing programs for disposal of household hazardous wastes. These amendments won the new support for the bill from California's waste management industry and from environmental groups. Bill Magavern of the Sierra Club said today: "The Sierra Club supports SB 774 because syringes should be treated as hazardous waste, so they do not endanger workers and the public." (Dirty syringes pose a threat to workers who sort recycling and solid waste on assembly lines at landfills.)
"This law will benefit not only drug users and their families, but workers at landfills, diabetics and other medical and veterinary users of syringes" said Glenn Backes of the Drug Policy Alliance Network. Backes, who previously consulted with the World Bank and UNAIDS on disease prevention among high-risk groups, points out that the drug paraphernalia statutes not only lead to high rates of AIDS and unsafe discard of syringes, but put law enforcement officers at unnecessary risk, as well.
Last year, in a letter to the Governor, a representative of the California Narcotics Officers' Association complained that the bill did not ensure local oversight and control, an issue sited by the Governor in his veto. To address that concern, SB 774 gives greater authority to the local health department to authorize and coordinate the pharmacy programs. In order to sell or furnish syringes, a pharmacist must be certified by the health department and comply with several mandates, including that they will provide instructions to each purchaser on how to access local drug treatment and health services.
Additionally, SB 774 was amended to sunset at the end of 2007, and to require the state Office of AIDS to evaluate the effect of syringe sale on rates of disease, needlestick injuries, crime and rates of unsafe discard. "If we see what we have seen in other states, then we will have less disease and less costs, with no down side," said Dustin Corcoran of the California Medical Association. "If there are negative effects, however, then we will have the evidence to shut down the program."
Corcoran added: "For physicians, this is a must-do. For lawmakers it should be a must-do. It is fiscally conservative and humane."
The Drug Policy Alliance Network begins an advertising campaign this week in gay and lesbian papers urging the Governor to sign SB 774.