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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Lawmakers propose needle exchange program to combat HIV/AIDS



State lawmakers hoping to reduce the number of Floridians living with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C are for the fourth time putting their weight behind a needle exchange program in Miami-Dade County.

The program — which would allow intravenous drug users to safely discard used needles and syringes in exchange for clean ones — would begin as a pilot program run by the University of Miami. It cleared its first Senate committee on a unanimous vote Monday.

This bill (SB 242), sponsored by Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, made it to the Senate floor last year but died in the House Judiciary Committee.

Opponents say programs like this make it easier for people to use illegal drugs. But Braynon says those detractors miss the point.

“I don’t think they understand how intravenous drug use works,” he said. “They don’t understand that it’s a debilitating and crippling addiction. The only way we can help them is to bring them into the system.”

Braynon’s proposal would be funded entirely by private donations. No state or local money could go to the program. And it would come back to the Legislature for reevaluation in 2020.

But Braynon’s hope is that the pilot program could blossom into a statewide effort.

Needle exchange programs like this one are a popular way for states to try and curb the spread of bloodborne diseases like HIV, which affects 26,445 people in Miami-Dade alone and 101,977 people across the state, according to the Florida Department of Health. Nearly a fifth of those cases are intravenous drug users.

In Hillsborough and Pinellas counties the numbers of those living with HIV/AIDS are lower -- 6,262 and 3,675, respectively -- although they are more frequently related to drug use than in Miami-Dade County or the state on average.

Even opponents of the programs are starting to turn to them. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a staunch opponent of needle exchanges, pushed a bill through that state’s legislature last spring after tiny Scott County saw 140 HIV diagnoses tied to drug use in just a few months, prompting Pence to declare a state of emergency.

[Last modified: Monday, November 2, 2015 5:34pm]


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