Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Needle exchange bill passes Senate committee

In the better-than-a-sharp-stick-in-the-eye department: This afternoon, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted out Sen. Lindsay's SB 127, which Grits discussed earlier today, authorizing local governments to operate needle exchange programs. The vote was 5-1, with Chair Jane Nelson voting 'nay.' Republican Senator Bob Deuell joined Lindsay and three Democrats - West, Gallegos and Zaffirini - to support it. Now it needs 21 votes to reach the Senate floor.

Sen. Nelson offered the only critique of the bill, which was unopposed by any interest group who signed up to speak. (By contrast, many healthcare and medical interests supported the legislation.) Most of her criticisms concerned appearances: How would it look? How will we explain it to the children? Bill proponent Bill Martin from the James A. Baker Institute in Houston thought that in the neighborhoods where drug addiction was rampant, the kids had already been clued into drug use by the dirty needles lining the streets. As for what to tell them, to paraphrase since I did not take detailed notes, he suggested parents tell their kids that the folks going to exchange needles were sick, or were at great risk of becoming sick, and that the needles were to prevent them from spreading that illness to others. Tell them to never pick up or touch a needle, he said, so they won't get sick, either, but also that they should feel compassion for those who are afflicted. I thought that was about the best answer I've ever heard to that question.

The District and County Attorneys Association testified "on" the bill, meaning they neither supported nor opposed it, and their lobbyist Shannon Edmonds explained to the committee the mechanism by which the bill would allow doctors and syringe exchange personnel to offer an affirmative defense against prosecution under Texas paraphernalia laws.

This was an historic step. The bill has been around a long time - Austin Rep. Glen Maxey carried a version of it for many years - but this is the first session ever it filed in both chambers, and the first time it's ever passed out of committee in the Senate. Congrats to Tracey, Amanda, and everybody else working on the bill - you're obviously making progress.

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