Upon hearing that the Senate Health and Human Services Committee might soon hear Sen. Bob Deuell's SB 308 allowing local governments the option to approve needle exchange programs, Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith dashed off a note alerting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and all Texas state senators and their staff to an article in the upcoming issue of TM by Bill Martin (here's a link to a free media preview of the story) exploring why Texas is the last state not to allow syringe exchange programs to operate legally.
I heard about the note and article and asked Evan for a copy, which he graciously provided. His note read:
"Dear _____________I'm writing because I understand the Texas Senate will take up the issue of needle-exchange programs at a committee hearing tomorrow. The April issue of TEXAS MONTHLY contains a substantial piece by writer-at-large William Martin, a senior fellow at the Baker Institute of Public Policy at Rice University, that makes the case for such programs--and laments the fact that Texas is the only state in the U.S. that does not permit this life-saving, disease-combatting practice. Although it's unusual for us to release a story not yet printed in our magazine, I thought it was important that you see this one immediately and consider it as you begin your conversation, so I've taken the liberty of sending you the attached copy.
Though some were surprised that Lindsay would sponsor the bill, he called it “a no-brainer.” “I talked to doctors and medical people, people who worked at clinics,” he explained. “They convinced me that it made sense to get dirty needles off the street. It wasn’t a hard sell at all. And of course, there is the side benefit of getting users in contact with clinics and medical professionals.” As for why the bill failed in 2005, he said that too many socially conservative legislators “are afraid of their shadow. They’re afraid they’ll be branded as catering to druggies and don’t want that to be a potential campaign issue. That’s the bottom line that is causing the hang-up. A large number of them don’t understand the issue. It’s more of a knee-jerk reaction.”Maybe this year with Dr. Deuell leading the charge the bill will have easier sledding. From his comments in this article and in committee last year, he appears to be an ardent and able advocate for syringe exchange programs:
“There is absolutely no reason to oppose a needle exchange program,” Deuell said. “The research is there. People who oppose it think it will encourage drug use. Research has shown it does not. It serves to prevent transmission of HIV and other blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis B and C, and it actually brings addicts to treatment, if they so desire.” Deuell also stressed that allowing greater access to sterile syringes “is going to cost the state less money. It costs us a fortune to treat HIV and hepatitis C. It’s breaking the budget.”That's a strong message and Deuell is a great messenger. Perhaps that combination will ward off some of the knee jerk attacks on the bill. Even conservatives at the Lone Star Times came out in favor of the legislation, to the surprise of some. Wrote blogger David Benzion:
Our current approach stinks, and I’m urging my State Senator to do the fiscally prudent–dare I say compassionate and even Christian thing–and sign on to this measure.As Martin notes in TM, there is little formal opposition to this bill except legislators' own fear. Between Dr. Deuell's public championing of the idea, Texas Monthly's timely publicity, and the lack of a hard-right backlash, this bill appears to have a lot of momentum in the Senate.
One minor correction to Martin's article. He wrote that "The Health and Human Services Committee sent the bill forward with only one dissenting vote, but it never came to a vote on the Senate floor." Actually, Lindsay got the bill to the floor but could only muster 17 votes, not the 20 it needed for passage, see the Senate Journal entry for SB 127. Senators Averitt, Duncan and Eltife joined Deuell, Lindsay and Senate Democrats in 2005 to support it. Deuell improves his chances a bit with Kyle Janek's support, mentioned in the TM article, and will just need to pick up three more votes to pass the bill in the Senate.
In other words, he's within spitting distance.
I'll bet not a lot of people thought this bill had a chance of moving this session. But some really good people are working on it, and sometimes the stars are just aligned. Here's hoping that's true this session for SB 308.