Why North Carolina Needs Syringe Decriminalization
It’s time for North Carolina to do something about its heroin problem. Over the past 6 years, state heroin use rates have more than tripled. More heroin means more injection drug use. More injection drug use means more syringes that could harm children, police officers and the community by transmitting viruses such as HIV and hepatitis B and C. Regardless of whether you choose to use drugs, what happens to those syringes affects all of us. To protect the health and safety of North Carolinians, the state needs to decriminalize syringes. Syringe decriminalization, or removing syringes from the list of items considered drug paraphernalia, lowers the incidence of accidental needle-stick injury to law enforcement and the public, decreases the transmission of blood borne viruses, and allows for safe disposal of used syringes.
Misguided syringe laws put officers at risk for accidental needle-stick injury while searching a person. If people fear legal consequences for carrying syringes, they are less likely to declare those items to an officer prior to search, leaving officers at risk for injury and disease exposure. In a recent study of NC law enforcement published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 82% of North Carolina officers in the survey reported that contracting HIV on the job was a major concern for them. 63% reported that decriminalizing syringes would be “good for law enforcement.” When syringes are decriminalized, needle-stick injury to law enforcement decreases significantly because people are more likely to give up syringes to police before being searched. One study of Connecticut police officers reported that needle-stick injuries plummeted by 66% when syringes were decriminalized in the state.
In 2013 North Carolina passed a new law, HB850, that protects people from a paraphernalia charge if they declare a syringe to an officer prior to search. This popular law (supported by the Sheriff’s Association and 95% of NC officers in a recent survey) is a great first step to ensure the safety of our law enforcement, but it is not enough. Because the law does not extend these protections to the tiny amounts of leftover drug residue inside the syringe, many people are still hesitant to be honest with law enforcement. And many officers are inconsistent in how they enforce the law. Full syringe decriminalization would eliminate these discrepancies and increase the likelihood that a person would give up syringes to officers and protect them from injury.
Decriminalizing syringes is also proven to help lower the transmission of harmful blood borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C. According to the CDC, 19% of all new infections are caused by shared syringes. People share syringes when they can’t get new ones due to restricted access and laws that criminalize these items. Cities and states that have decriminalized syringes have slashed HIV new infection rates by up to 80% among injection drug users and hepatitis C rates by 50% because if people can access new syringes, they won’t share used ones. It costs taxpayers $380,000 to treat an HIV positive person on Medicaid and $100,000 to treat someone with hepatitis C (plus an additional $500,000 if the person needs a liver transplant).
It might seem that syringe decriminalization would lead to more syringes discarded in the community, but in fact the opposite is true. Syringe decriminalization lowers the amount of syringes discarded in public places where they could be harmful to children, sanitation workers and the public. It does this by providing incentives for people who use syringes to store them safely in puncture-proof containers after use. Under current law, a syringe secured in a biohazard container and a syringe tossed near a playground carry the same penalty: a misdemeanor for possession of drug paraphernalia and a potential felony if any drug residue is left in the barrel of the syringe. So naturally, people discard syringes as soon as possible whether in public parks, bathrooms, or other places where they can harm the community. A recent survey of injection drug users in North Carolina indicates that 68% of them discard syringes immediately after use by throwing them out the car window, flushing them down the toilet and tossing them in the trash. Decriminalizing syringes allows people to secure them in puncture-proof containers without legal risk. It also enables nonprofit organizations to collect and incinerate sharp materials that have been used for drugs.
Syringe decriminalization is not only proven to lower needle-stick injury, reduce disease transmission, and help keep these dangerous items out of our communities, but it accomplishes these goals without increasing drug use or costing North Carolina taxpayers a penny. By choosing to criminalize syringes, we punish ourselves more than anyone else. We punish ourselves by accepting higher taxes to pay for treatment for people with HIV and hepatitis C from shared needles. We punish ourselves by exposing our law enforcement officer to risk of needle-stick injury and paying for their treatment too. We punish ourselves by allowing our children to play in public parks where there may be discarded syringes. And we fool ourselves into thinking that these problems only affect drug users, not the rest of us.
Syringe decriminalization may not be the obvious choice, but it’s the right one. It is high time North Carolina adopted a common sense solution to the syringe problem