Legal Needles

A New Law Bodes Change for Drug Users

Perhaps the biggest question mark is how—or whether—the new law will improve drug users' tenuous relationships with police. Needle exchange participants already live by a seemingly contradictory set of rules, some of which are routinely broken. It's still illegal to carry dirty syringes, or at least the miniscule amounts of drug residue on them, for instance, despite the fact that getting dirty needles off the street was part of the reason needle exchange programs were decriminalized in 1992. And, though registered needle exchange members should be allowed to carry clean needles, as many as one quarter of those in a recent, informal survey spent time in jail for this technically legal "offense."

"Many police, lawyers, and judges just aren't aware of the law" that protects needle exchange members, says Corinne Carey, the lawyer who conducted the survey. The ignorance of—or disregard for—the law that causes these situations will likely be unchanged by the fact that drugstores will be allowed to sell needles, notes Carey. "The police who don't care what your [needle exchange] card says will say the same thing about pharmacies," she predicts.

Nevertheless, even Carey and other vigilant advocates for drug users acknowledge that allowing pharmacies to sell needles without a prescription is a step in the right direction. "It normalizes the issue," she says. The law may also allow needle exchange programs to focus their efforts on those in the most dire situations, as users who are a little better off pay for their needles elsewhere.

Just which side of the fence anyone will end up on is not always apparent. Though he says he plans to buy at the pharmacy come January, it's easy to imagine that Ben may not be able to swing that. He might be on the street, where he's been before, or just so broke he'll have no choice but to rely on the free needles from the exchange. If, on the other hand, Ben keeps his job as a makeup artist and hangs on to his apartment (he's now two months behind in rent), you might find him buying needles from the local Rite Aid when January rolls around. Almost everyone, not least of all Ben, is glad he'll have that choice.

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