Last week Governor DeSantis signed into law a new, controversial program allowing drug users the ability to exchange used needles for clean ones. The idea comes from a pilot program that had been running in Miami-Dade County since 2016. One may be surprised that such a measure passed through the Republican led legislature in Florida. However, because of South Florida’s success, lawmakers had no choice but to act.
Under the new policy, drug users can hand in used needles for clean ones. No questions asked! However, the law itself does not mandate the program. Rather it simply enables counties to permit their own programs should they choose. Of course, there are shortfalls to the bill as well. For instance, an organization that provides the service must also provide drug users counseling services to attempt to dissuade them from further use. Specific education on blood transmitted diseases is required including AIDS and Hepatitis B. While obviously a good idea, this mandate does place added strain on the providers.
The other major hurdle to the law as it is written is leaving funding for the project in the hands of individual communities. While tax payer dollars can be used to pay for the service, counties could choose to provide no funding and require agencies who wish to provide assistance to seek private funding and donations to keep their doors open. Proponents of the program also point out Florida’s law against possession of drug paraphernalia. Florida Statute Section 893.147 (2018) criminalizes the possession of any item “that is used, intended to be used, or designed to be used as Drug Paraphernalia.” Clearly, walking around with a large amount of needles could be interpreted as falling under the jurisdiction of this statute.
While there are definitely critics to the new law, the data clearly shows that programs similar to this have had a major impact on crime and deaths associated with illegal drug use. Indeed, Miami saw such a significant effect from its pilot program that even the staunches opponents to drug use had to take notice. Some statistics have found that the Miami program successfully removed over 250,000 used needles out of circulation. Certainly, if not for this result, the governor would not have diverted from a core Republican belief and permit the program in Florida.
From a policy perspective, the idea of a needle exchange program challenges citizen’s notions on crime. At his heart, any program of this nature assumes to some degree surrender to a criminal problem that seems to have no solution. However, a different perspective on the matter focuses on changing views on drug users themselves. Through drug exchanges we begin to see these individuals as people with an illness as oppose to criminals attacking the moral fabric of our society. No matter what your position on the debate, unless counties provide buy in for this type of outreach, the needle exchange program may be doomed for failure.
-By Marc Consalo, Director of the Center for Law and Policy