1. News
  2. /
  3. Hillsborough

Commissioners approve plans for first needle exchange program in Hillsborough County

The goal is to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases among intravenous drug users, their sexual partners and their children.
Hillsborough County commissioners voted Wednesday to launch the county's own sterile needle and syringe exchange program, becoming one of the first in Florida to take advantage of the state Legislature's 2019 decision to reverse a ban on the programs. [C.M. GUERRERO  |  Miami Herald]
Hillsborough County commissioners voted Wednesday to launch the county's own sterile needle and syringe exchange program, becoming one of the first in Florida to take advantage of the state Legislature's 2019 decision to reverse a ban on the programs. [C.M. GUERRERO | Miami Herald]
Published Feb. 6

TAMPA — It’s a controversial solution to a complicated problem — and one that Hillsborough County has never tried before.

But with a groundswell of support from local health agencies, county commissioners gave final approval on Wednesday to launch a countywide needle and syringe exchange program.

Local governments throughout the country have operated similar programs for decades as a way to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases among intravenous drug users, their sexual partners and their children. But Hillsborough’s forthcoming Syringe Service Program, expected to begin in March, will be one of the first of its kind in state history.

Launching any county-wide programs where citizens could get free hypodermic needles and syringes in exchange for used ones was banned by the Florida Legislature until late last year, when lawmakers learned the results of a five-year pilot program in Miami-Dade County and reversed the ruling.

Local governments are still prohibited from using state, county or municipal funding to launch a needle exchange. Yet at least three other counties — Manatee, Palm Beach and Broward — have also begun efforts to begin their own programs in the wake of the decision.

Related: Hillsborough takes first steps toward needle exchange pilot program

For Commissioner Sandra Murman, who has worked to launch a Hillsborough-based program, the proof was in the numbers.

The University of Miami, which was tasked by the state with overseeing the pilot project, reported steady decreases in the the number of opioid-related deaths in Miami-Dade County – from 321 deaths in 2016 to 305 in 2017 to 213 in 2018. It was the only county in the state where the number of opioid-related deaths actually decreased in 2018.

In 2017, Hillsborough County reported 179 opioid-related deaths. In 2018, that number increased to 222.

The county has also grappled with a surge in the number of citizens living with HIV. In 2018, Hillsborough County counted 7,521 citizens living with the virus, at least 323 of whom were newly diagnosed. Considering that the average lifetime cost of HIV treatment is about $400,000 per person, Murman said, the new initiative will not only save lives but also taxpayer dollars.

“Hillsborough County is experiencing one of the highest HIV rates in the state of Florida. We have the highest opioid death rate. We have to do something,” Murman urged the board at Wednesday’s meeting.

“This is a tool in the toolbox,” she said. “Every single inch of this program has been scrutinized legally, medically and socially because I wanted to answer my own concerns on whether we were doing the right thing. And I can say now we are absolutely doing the right thing.”

Related: Hillsborough wants to study starting needle exchange program

The initiative came to the board with the unanimous support of Hillsborough’s 52-member Health Care Advisory Board as well as the county’s Behavioral Health Task Force. A lengthy review of programs throughout the country found little evidence that these initiatives led to increased intravenous drug use or crime like lawmakers feared, county health officials said.

Commissioners have yet to approve any contracts or agreements with the agencies needed to support the program. But the county’s Health Care Services department has already secured partnerships with agencies including Tampa General Hospital, the University of South Florida’s College of Medicine, the USF Department of Mental Health Law and Policy, Gracepoint, Metro Inclusive Health and the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office, known as DACCO.

The program can easily be supported by existing outreach initiatives sponsored by the university and Tampa General Hospital. The current plan is to operate the program out of vans owned by USF’s Tampa Bay Street Medicine student organization.

The group has already identified three target areas around Hillsborough Avenue and 22nd Street where the mobile teams would not only pass out free syringes, but also provide condoms, alcohol swabs and Narcan, said Dr. Asa Oxner, a doctor at Tampa General and an associate program director of internal medicine at USF.

“We have a grant already that we are using to pay for prescription medications for these patients, and that grant could be used to buy the starting stock of syringes that we would use for the exchange,” Oxner said. “We would be ready to go as soon as it’s voted into ordinance.”

Jason Wilson, an emergency medicine doctor at Tampa General, is tapped to serve as one of the program’s medical directors. With the county’s existing partnerships, Wilson said, the program can also provide those patients with mental health counseling, connect them to social services for long-term care and provide on-site medical treatment for high blood pressure, diabetes, hepatitis C and HIV.

“When I trained, patients would come in with a drug overdose and we really had no options for those patients,” Wilson said. “We would tell them, ‘Good luck, here’s a list of resources, I hope you do better.’ Patients died.”

“I think we have an opportunity here today to save patients’ lives,” Wilson said.

Related: This needle exchange program is saving lives in Miami-Dade. Now it could be coming to Tampa Bay.

In other actions on Wednesday:

º Commissioners passed a resolution of support for Senate Bill 810, which seeks to increase the minimum age for purchasing, selling or possessing all tobacco products from 18 to 21 throughout Florida. In the event the bill is rejected by the state Legislature, commissioners directed staff to begin drafting an ordinance that would have the same effect throughout Hillsborough County.

º Commissioners scheduled a public hearing on proposed amendments to the Pet Retail Sales ordinance for February 19 at 10 a.m. The proposed changes would ban all commercial pet retail stores operating within county limits. Stores currently operating within Hillsborough County would have about six months to adapt to an “adoption-based model."

º Commissioners scheduled a second public hearing for February 19 at 10 a.m. to consider decriminalizing the possession of up to 20 grams of marijuana.


  1. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor answer questions during a meeting of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club Friday.
  2. A "for sale" sign beckons Friday along Sixth Avenue N in the Kenwood area of St. Petersburg.
  3. FedEx packages,  shown left, were filled with $81,000 from people out of state who Hillsborough deputies say were scammed by Dontavius Oakley, 35, who is charged with fraud.
  4. Jurors on Friday said they could not reach a unanimous verdict in the case against Michael Keetley, an ice cream man accused of murder. Keetley, right, smirked as the judge instructed the jury to try again to reach a verdict.
  5. A section of the Robles Park Village public housing complex was built on top the forgotten Zion Cemetery.
  6. Tampa Fire Rescue units arrived at 1011 E 23rd Ave. and put out the fire that consumed this two-story house. The fire was started by a man who trapped himself inside, officials said, and later died of his injuries.
  7. Tampa City Council chairman Luis Viera said Mayor Jane Castor's decision to add a second ambulance to Station 13 in North Tampa will improve emergency services for his constituents.
  8. A rendering of the new Ulta created by Hennon Group Architects and included in the permits for the building filed with the City of Tampa.
  9. New Orleans-based Dat Dog offers exotic sausages like alligator, duck and crawfish, along with multiple vegan options and more than 30 toppings. The chain is seeking franchisees to bring a location to Tampa Bay.
  10. James S. Moody III was appointed in January as a Hillsborough County Judge. He is the son of federal judge James S. Moody Jr. and the brother of Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. [Photo courtesy of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court]
  11. Michael Keetley is brought into the courtroom during his murder trial Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020 in Tampa. Keetley is the former ice cream truck driver who is accused of shooting a group of men in 2010.
  12. The Oaks Estate, a mansion owned by Lazydays RV co-founder Donald Wallace and his wife Erika. The property is a French-Normandy country-style gated manor build on Lake Thonotosassa listed on the market with an asking price of $17.5 million. It includes a main house, 2-story guest house, garage for up to 20 cars, workshop, pool house, gatehouse, horse barn with grazing pasture, indoor and outdoor pools, 2-story boat house, go-cart track, bowling alley and jogging trail pictured on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020 in Thonotosassa.