The Bexar Area Harm Reduction Coalition remains under legal fire for its needle-exchange program — which provides intravenous drug users with sterile needles and encourages them to turn in used ones, often carriers of HIV and Hepatitis, for safe disposal — but help appears to be on the way. Advocates expressed optimism earlier this month that the legislature will pass a statewide needle-exchange program in the upcoming session. State Representative Ruth McClendon and Senator Leticia Van de Putte, both Democrats from San Antonio, along with Greenville Republican Senator Robert Deuell, plan to reintroduce bills similar to ones they tried to get through last session, authorizing local health departments to operate needle-exchange programs. Texas remains the only state in the Union that does not allow for a needle-exchange problem.
The lege approved a pilot program for Bexar County — sponsored by Representative McClendon — last round, but Bexar DA Susan Reed got Texas AG Greg Abbott to agree that the bill’s language doesn’t exempt volunteers working for the program from prosecution under anti-drug laws. Got that?
Attorney Neel Lane, who represents the Coalition, says there’s broad bipartisan support for the new bills, which would allow health authorities to create programs to offer sterile needles and syringes to those in need and shield workers, volunteers, and users from legal liability. While the new legislation specifically excludes prior violations from its scope — and the pilot program didn’t apply to the Coalition’s private efforts — Lane believes that the three Coalition members who were cited by Reed’s enforcers will not be prosecuted due to the pending legislation and opposition among the health community.
“It’s been nearly a year since `they` were cited … and there’s been no charge filed,” says Lane. “The problem is we will never get a notice that they won’t be prosecuted … but it’s very unlikely `charges` will be filed now.”
Charlene Doria-Ortiz, program manager for the Division of Community Health at the Bexar County Department of Community Investment, emphasizes that the Bexar Area Harm Reduction Coalition is a private enterprise that was operating outside of her department’s official authority. “We were designated as the pilot program,” says Doria-Ortiz, noting that the baseline work done by her department will enable San Antonio to “be in a unique position to help other cities” in Texas organize their programs once the new legislation is passed. “The cast of characters `in the legislature` has changed, so there won’t be the same blockages and impediments.”