Wilson: Syringe decriminalization: the unexpected truths

Feb. 02, 2013 @ 05:43 PM

Here’s a number that might surprise you: According to national studies, one in three law enforcement officers will experience a needlestick -- an accidental puncture from a concealed syringe -- during their careers. Twenty-eight percent will receive multiple sticks. Fortunately, there is a simple, cost-effective, and research-supported strategy to address this alarmingly high statistic: we need to decriminalize syringes.

There are many reasons why a law enforcement officer might encounter a syringe on the job.

Here in North Carolina, for example, there are 680,000 diabetics, an estimated 25,000 people who inject drugs and significant numbers of people who use syringes for various other reasons, such as to take hormones or vitamins.

When you consider how many North Carolinians have some reason to use syringes, it seems inevitable that law enforcement officers would encounter needles at some point during their routine interactions with the public. What isn’t inevitable is how frequently the outcome of the encounter is a needlestick. When searching for the reason that officers’ encounters with syringes go wrong so often, we need look no further than current North Carolina laws that categorize syringe possession as a Class A misdemeanor.

Typically, needlesticks happen when someone carrying a syringe fails to disclose its presence to an officer during a search or pat-down. Officers often ask, “Before I search you, do you have anything here that can hurt me?” If a person is carrying a needle they know they could get in trouble for having, they are often reluctant to mention it. Instead, they frequently choose to keep silent and hope that the officer will not find the syringe, thus creating the textbook scenario for an accidental needlestick to occur.

However, if the person carrying the needle is certain he or she will not be punished just for having it, they are much more likely to respond truthfully. When syringes are decriminalized, an opportunity is created for the officer and the community member to have this conversation openly and safely, thereby greatly reducing the risk of harm to the officer. In communities where syringes are decriminalized -- removed from the list of items that are legally considered “drug paraphernalia” -- an officer’s risk of experiencing a needlestick has been proven to drop dramatically, by as much as 66 percent.

 Though a needlestick takes only seconds to occur, its harmful consequences are complex and significant. Because of the high risk of exposure to blood-borne diseases such as HIV or hepatitis C, affected officers must undergo testing and sometimes “post-exposure prophylaxis,” an expensive and difficult course of preemptive treatment intended to reduce the chances of HIV surviving inside the body.

Both the testing and the treatment can take months. Even if all turns out to be well, these are costly outcomes for an officer, her/his department and the community -- not only in terms of the medical care required, but also because of the great anxiety officers endure during this process. Syringe decriminalization would help every officer in North Carolina avoid this lengthy, expensive and stressful ordeal.

Importantly, syringe decriminalization is also shown to improve the public health of communities by greatly reducing the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C and other devastating diseases easily acquired by sharing syringes. After all, if it is easy and legal to get and carry a clean needle, you are much less likely to reuse or share needles instead.

More unexpectedly, when syringes are decriminalized, other things are reduced. For example: crime. In Baltimore, neighborhoods with syringe decriminalization experienced an 11 percent decrease in crime. This is compared to those without syringe decriminalization, which suffered an 8 percent increase in criminal activity.

Another unexpected thing syringe decriminalization laws help reduce: addiction. A Vancouver study reported that participants in syringe access programs were five times more likely to enter addiction rehabilitation programs than non-participants.

It is easy and intuitive to assume that if syringes are decriminalized, this will also create

opportunities for injection drug use and its negative consequences to increase. However,

numerous studies have shown that greater syringe access has no effect on drug use. Syringe

criminalization is a case where making the easy judgment fails us. Restricting syringe access makes us sicker, puts the brave people we trust to protect us at risk and weakens our communities.

You don’t have to use syringes, or care about people who do, to care about syringe decriminalization. If you care about reducing disease and addiction, protecting law enforcement from unnecessary stress and danger, or making our communities healthier and stronger, you already support syringe decriminalization in North Carolina.

Loftin Wilson lives in Durham and works with the N. C. Harm Reduction Coalition to improve North Carolina’s public health