Legislature Approves Plan for Needle Exchange Program in Miami-Dade

Two things that are shamefully prevalent in Miami-Dade County: dirty needles littering the streets and HIV infections. Last year, New Times joined a needle exchange activist on a stroll through Overtown and witnessed the shocking number of needles left lying on the street. One was even on the grounds of an elementary school. Meanwhile, Miami-Dade continues to have the highest rate of HIV infection in the nation. Those two facts are related. Addicts sharing dirty needles leads to infections of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. 

Needle exchange programs have been proven to combat both. The problem is that state laws forbid such programs. Yesterday, however, the Florida Legislature finally passed a bill providing an exception in Miami-Dade. The University of Miami would be allowed to run its own needle exchange pilot program. The bill now heads to Gov. Rick Scott's desk. 

“We can provide clean needles, a smile, and offer to help,” Rep. Cary Pigman, a Republican who is also an emergency physician, said in support of the bill. “Maybe we can bring a life up from that pit of darkness and sadness that is addiction.”

State Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami-Dade Democrat, has fought for the bill for years, but it died in all previous sessions. Despite strong evidence that the program's overall effects would be positive, some critics of thought it would mean the state was sanctioning drug use. 

Under the program, users can exchange dirty needles for clean, unused ones and hypodermic syringes free of charge. Health services will be offered, including HIV testing, but participants won't be required to seek treatment for their addiction. The programs are targeted at harm reduction and lead to health-care cost reductions in the long run. Both the National Institute of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support needle exchanges. 

UM will be allowed to run the pilot program for five years, at which point the university will file a report on its effectiveness. The program must be funded through private donations. No taxpayer funds will be used. 

The bill passed 95-20 in the House. The Senate had previously passed the bill 37-2. Its fate is now up to Rick Scott. 

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