Proposal to allow needle exchanges statewide heads to House floor

A version of the bill passed unanimously in the Senate last week.
needle exchange
Published April 9, 2019

The Florida House is set to take up allowing needle exchanges beyond Miami-Dade, after the House Health and Human Services committee voted Tuesday to advance a bill that would let other counties create their own programs with the approval of their county commissions.

CS/HB 171 would expand a state law that created a pilot needle exchange program in Miami-Dade in 2016 — since that pilot was established, injection drug users have been able to trade dirty needles for clean ones at no charge and get connected to wound care and drug treatment. Expanding the program has been proposed every year since, though those efforts have not yet been successful. This year’s bill, sponsored by Reps. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park and Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, cleared its final House stop unanimously and could be heard on the House floor as early as next week.

“This is a big win for Florida,” Jones said after the vote.

As the House prepares to again take up the proposed statewide expansion, it will need to resolve some differences with the bill’s Senate companion, CS/SB 366, which the Senate approved unanimously a week ago.

The House version prohibits county funds from being used to operate such programs, though the Senate version allows local public dollars to be used. The House version is also stricter about enforcing a requirement that dirty needles be exchanged on a one-to-one basis for clean ones, though the Senate allows counties to waive that requirement under extenuating circumstances.

Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who visited the Miami-Dade program’s Overtown clinic late last year, told reporters last week that he still had some reservations about the program but that he had been impressed by its results. He did insist that he would only support the legislation if it limited funding for the programs to private dollars, citing his fear that if public money was allocated, “before you know it, it's a seven-foot fully glass building and the project costs $20 million."

Last year’s push to expand the program statewide had run into opposition from the Florida Sheriffs Association, which had objected to expanding programs without county commissions’ approval. This year’s bill, said Hansel Tookes, the University of Miami doctor who has helped lead the pilot, was crafted with some of those compromises in mind.

He acknowledged the prohibition on local dollars in the House bill meant “it’s going to be difficult for programs in rural areas to set up.”

But Tookes added that in urban counties like Broward and Palm Beach where local commissions have already indicated they are supportive of such a program, allowing needle exchanges could save thousands of lives. “I am more optimistic than I have ever been,” he said.

Matt Zweil, an advocate who for years has sought to open a similar exchange program in Tampa Bay, said Tuesday he could work with the public funding restriction and that he supported the one-to-one requirement on exchanging dirty needles in the House version of the bill: “I am prepared to get out there and do the work and pay for it myself, and then come back to them a couple years down the line and demonstrate the value of that work.”

If the House does pass the bill, it will need to be sent back to the Senate for both chambers to agree on what the legislation should look like. But Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, who sponsored the proposal in the Senate, said he is optimistic the House and Senate will find a way to agree on the legislation before session ends May 3.

“I’m open to talking to them about it,” he said. “I want to pass it. They want to pass it. I hope we’ll find a landing place.”