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Amid Concerns About Drug Enforcement, Treatment 'Silos,' Needle Exchange Bill Edges Forward

Nathan Forget

A bill that would give counties the ability to set up needle exchanges without first getting state approval is one step closer to becoming law.

A Senate committee has approved the bill despite concerns from Attorney General Curtis Hill.

The Attorney General’s office says it’s neutral on the legislation, but nevertheless sent a representative to Wednesday’s Health and Provider Services Committee with a list of amendments.

Those recommendations include requiring program operators to collect more data from exchange participants, such as information about travel between zip codes to access the services.

State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams says he thinks more data and cooperation between offices is, for the most part, an admirable goal. But he also says there’s nothing that would prevent programs from doing what Hill wants.

“The actual bill gives us the flexibility to do all the things that were suggested to do as part of the attorney general’s suggestions already,” he says.

However, health officials, including Adams, shot down a suggestion needle exchanges give out clean syringes only if they first get back a used one, calling that too cumbersome to implement and potentially dangerous for workers. 

The Attorney General also recommended amending the bill to include requirements for law enforcement to be consulted before creation of a needle exchange. The bill ultimately passed 12-0 without any amendments added.

Liz Brown (R-Fort Wayne) says she’s concerned addressing the state’s drug epidemic is leading to polarization, with health officials treating addiction as a mental health problem and law enforcement treating it as a criminal problem.

“We’re working on the one side but there’s still a bigger law enforcement issue here, I’m really concerned we seem to be moving in the direction of this is a purely health issue, and almost a lack of willingness to share information with law enforcement,” Brown says.

Adams says the key to preventing those silos is more education.

“What we need to do is work on communities to partner more with law enforcement and the public health community,” Adams says.

Police are prohibited from arresting someone based on their enrollment in a syringe services program -- Nine of which have been approved in Indiana since SEPs were legalized in 2015.

Earlier this year, the bill drew impassioned testimony from Hill, who raised concerns syringe exchanges would flood the streets with needles and potentially add to drug use.

That assertion has been refuted by multiple studies.

Currently, local governments need the state health commissioner to confirm a public health emergency before counties can establish their syringe exchange programs. The proposed bill would still allow municipalities to seek approval through the State Health Department.

Indiana doesn’t distribute money to establish exchanges, which are instead funded through non profits and local health agencies.

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