Syringe Services: A Proven Public Health Intervention that Saves Lives

Arizona Law is Having Chilling Effect

The opioid epidemic is one of the greatest public health crises of our time.  The roots that caused the epidemic are deep and the public health interventions that will be needed to ease the crisis are many.  Those interventions include dramatic changes to prescribing practices, things like the distribution of naloxone, more robust treatment options including Medically Assisted Treatment, and harm reduction and engagement strategies like Syringe Services.

We need all those tools working together in order to mount an effective response.  Last year’s Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act was an important new law that is addressing many of those factors- but not all.  A real outlier is that the Act didn’t make an important change that is needed in Arizona – decriminalizing syringe service programs. As this excellent report by Stephanie Innes in the Republic this week shows, needle exchange efforts in Arizona have been impaired because some of the things that syringe service programs do are considered felonies under state law.

Syringe services programs are community-based prevention efforts that offer a range of interventions. They provide access to and disposal of sterile syringes and injection equipment, linkage to substance use disorder treatment, and naloxone distribution.  People who use syringe service programs gain access to other vital services including vaccination, testing, and linkage to care and treatment for infectious diseases including viral hepatitis and HIV. 

Nearly 30 years of research shows that comprehensive syringe service programs are safe, effective, and reduce overall health costs. They play an important role in reducing the transmission of viral hepatitis, HIV, and other infections and are a major component of the Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America initiative. The U.S. Surgeon General determined that syringe service programs don’t increase the illegal use of drugs by injection. Studies also show that they protect the public and first responders by providing safe needle disposal.

Sadly, syringe service programs in Arizona are illegal because syringes are considered drug paraphernalia under Arizona law (a class 6 felony). While arrests, indictments and convictions of workers that operate syringe service programs are rare- the fact that syringe service programs are illegal has a marked chilling effect on the ability of organizations and individuals to operate and fund these important programs. 

After all- it’s pretty hard to get a grant award if you need to disclose to the funder that you intend to commit felonies with the money!

A cohort of public health organizations led by Sonoran Prevention Works have been trying for the last few years to simply decriminalize syringe service programs.  Pretty simple, right?

Sadly, the effort has been unsuccessful. 

In 2018 HB 2389 Syringe access programs; authorization passed the full House of Representatives, was dramatically weakened by a poor amendment in the Senate but ultimately failed to come out of a Conference Committee.  This year, HB 2148 Syringe Services Programs failed to even make it to the House Floor for a vote.

Public health stakeholders will continue to try to get our Legislature to pass a bill that will decriminalize this important evidence-based public health practice.

By the way, the CDC has released materials that health departments can use to provide information on the critical role of SSPs in prevention and treatment, including:

  • A summary of information on the safety and effectiveness of SSPs in reducing viral hepatitis and HIV;

  • A fact sheet outlining the various ways syringe service programs can prevent transmission of blood-borne infections and link people to care, reduce and treat substance use, and enhance public safety;

  • A fact sheet for health departments and community partners that defines syringe service programs and their public health impacts; and

  • Frequently asked questions and answers about syringe service programs.

All of these materials are available to you online on the CDC’s Syringe Services Programs website.

Here’s a statement from the CDC on the subject: “It is our hope that by sharing these materials with you, we will engage the full strength of the nation’s public health and community infrastructure to reduce the toll of opioids and infectious diseases in our communities. We have the tools. We have the science. We can work together to improve the health and security of current and future generations.”