Focus from the Field
Injection drug users, sex workers, harm reduction advocates, conservative think-tanks, lawmakers, and law enforcement officials. Most likely these populations may not immediately come to mind as having some – if any -- common ground.
Yet it is exactly the common ground between these populations that is the cornerstone of the strategy of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) in making pivotal advances to advance policy and legislation that decriminalizes syringe possession. Syringe decriminalization increases safety for law enforcement officials (LEOs), injection drug users, diabetics, transgender people and the communities in which they live. Syringe exchange programs are scientifically proven to reduce HIV and hepatitis transmission, but laws that make the possession of syringes illegal can bring the success of those programs to a grinding halt.
Much of NCHRC’s work on syringe access is supported by AIDS United funding, to advocate for local and statewide policy change to support syringe decriminalization, and promote the broader acceptance and use of harm reduction methods in North Carolina.
Last year, NCHRC hosted the Summit of Law Enforcement Safety and Drug Policy, to discuss sound drug policies that can have an impact on decreasing the incidence of HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis. The Summit had the support of Republicans, Democrats, and former law enforcement officials.
“Syringe decriminalization has historically been seen as a liberal cause,” said Robert Childs, NCHRC Executive Director. “However collaboration with unlikely partners is the cornerstone to seeing a reduction in HIV and hepatitis transmission, and changing this issue from a liberal cause to a conservative and a liberal cause.”
According to the NC SHARP Report, North Carolina is home to an estimated 35,000 people living with HIV/AIDS, with approximately 15% who do not know they are infected. Childs adds that the state also has estimated 25,000 urban injection drug users, with the largest concentration in Mecklenburg County, where the city of Charlotte is located. Mecklenburg County has the highest rate of new HIV infections, highest number of deaths from AIDS, and the highest prevalence of viral hepatitis. Durham County, where the NCHRC office is located, has the second highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the state.
In addition to advocacy, resource development and direct services to drug users and sex workers, NCHRC also works with law enforcement officers to prevent occupational hazards like needle sticks and cuts from crack pipes. Lorentz et al. reported that one in three law enforcement officers suffer a needle stick in their career and 28% suffer multiple. In 2012 IRB approved study, NCHRC collected data from North Carolina law enforcement officers in 61 police departments on their attitudes towards syringe decriminalization. Preliminary data reported overwhelming support, with 84% having a positive impression of syringe decriminalization. States that have decriminalized syringes saw a 66% reduction in needle sticks among law enforcement officers.
Through NCHRC’s advocacy, state legislators have introduced and passed several bills.
- 2013: NCHRC advocacy led to the signing into law of Republican-introduced “911 Good Samaritan, Naloxone Access and Alcohol Immunity Bill,” which provides limited immunity for people calling 911 or seeking medical help for a drug overdose, limited immunity for minors calling 911 or seeking medical assistance during alcohol poisonings, easier distribution for the overdose reversal medication Naloxone (aka Narcan) and reduced liability to prescribers and administrators of Naloxone. This bill also decriminalizes syringes and drug paraphernalia during drug overdoses.
- In 2013, NCHRC advocacy also led to the recent Republican introduced House Bill 850 (HB850), "Possession of Needles, Tell Law Officer," which would decriminalize the possession of syringes and other sharps if a person declares them to a law enforcement officer prior to search. This bill has over 20 sponsors and is currently going through the legislative process.
- 2013 also saw the introduction of a full syringe decriminalization bill called HB481, “Reduce Needlestick Injuries,” introduced by NC House Democrats.
- 2012: NCHRC legislative advocacy led to buy in from Republican lawmakers to support a partial syringe decriminalization bill and a 911 Good Samaritan, Naloxone Access law. Legislators committed to introducing a bill in the 2013 during the NC Long Session.
- 2011: NCHRC advocacy led to the introduction on HB 601 to decriminalize syringes.
- 2010: NCHRC legislative advocacy developed buy in from Democratic and libertarian legislators.
- 2009: Advocacy led to the passing of a special provision in the state’s appropriations bill that provided funding for harm reduction and viral hepatitis education in NC.
- 2008: NCHRC organized a successful grassroots mobilization campaign that resulted in the introduction of a bill that would have authorized and funded three pilot SEPs.
“We are making real inroads in our efforts to decriminalize syringes and to provide harm reduction education and resources,” said Childs. “NCHRC is garnering incremental but growing support among lawmakers, we are reaching more and more people through our street outreach, and we are training more law enforcement officers. Thanks to AIDS United’s support, we can reach more people, host more meetings, organize more effectively around issues, improve the quality of our services, and, ultimately, moving closer to severely reducing the HIV/AIDS and hepatitis incidence in North Carolina!”