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Doing Right on Drugs

A needle-exchange program moves toward a Senate vote

By Jordan Smith, Fri., April 20, 2007

It was a good week in the Lege for drug-policy and health-policy reformers, as two bills – Senate Bill 308 and SB 1909 – made significant progress toward passage.

On April 12, the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services passed SB 308, by Sen. Robert Deuell, R-Greenville, which would allow a local health department to establish an anonymous needle-exchange program. The idea is to reduce the spread of communicable diseases – specifically, HIV and hepatitis C – spread by intravenous drug users. In addition to the one-for-one needle exchange, program operators would be required to educate clients on the transmission and prevention of communicable disease and to help program participants obtain other health-care services – including drug treatment and "blood-borne disease testing."

Needle-exchange programs already operate legally in 49 states, says Deuell aide Scot Kibbe, leaving Texas the last to embrace the proven public-health measure. This is not to say that the harm-reduction programs don't operate here – rather, without the official nod, they've been forced underground or have had to operate in a quasi-alliance with police of the don't-ask-don't-tell variety. Similar legislation failed to earn legislative support in 2003 and 2005, but this year, with Deuell, a doctor, on board, the measure is facing better odds – indeed, HHSC chair Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, and member Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, who opposed the measure in the past, gave Deuell's bill the thumbs-up last week. Perhaps that's because Deuell has been so forceful in supporting the bill. In explaining the measure to his fellow committee members last week, Deuell was both practical and passionate: "There is clear and undeniable evidence" that needle-exchange programs reduce the spread of communicable disease, he told lawmakers. "It isn't that drug abuse is something I accept, but [I believe] that all life is valuable," he continued. "I wish there was no need for this bill and that no one ever had to suffer [with] HIV [or] hepatitis C. [But] I know that you can't always get what you wish for." And, as such, he said, it is incumbent that lawmakers use "all tools available" to protect the public health – including that of IV drug users.

And on April 17, Deuell found himself on the right side of another victory, with Senate passage of SB 1909, which he authored with Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and John Carona, R-Dallas. The bipartisan measure would divert from prison or jail thousands of low-level drug offenders – those facing third-degree charges or less – requiring instead that they go through drug treatment while on community supervision and pay at least some of the costs of that treatment. The bill would also limit the circumstances under which the state could revoke parole for minor drug crimes. It also would allow a judge to impose jail or prison time in certain cases – including when finding by a "preponderance" of evidence that the offender is a danger to self or others or has a record of at least two previous drug-related convictions.

According to the Legislative Budget Board, 12,612 people were sent to state jail or prison facilities for low-level drug-possession crimes in fiscal year 2006, at a cost to the state of $36-40 per day. In contrast, drug treatment costs less than $4 per day, per offender, the LBB notes. In all, the LBB estimates that diverting low-level drug offenders from the state's bulging-at-the-seams prison population would save the state more than $112 million through 2009, followed by additional yearly savings of up to $138 million through 2012.

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