Arizona House considers legalizing needle exchange programs

A bill that would create a needle-exchange program in Arizona is being considered in the state house. (Photo by Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

A bill that would create a needle-exchange program in Arizona is being considered in the state house. (Photo by Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

PHOENIX — The Arizona House is considering a proposal that would legalize needle exchange programs for illicit drug users for the first time.

Republican Rep. Tony Rivero of Peoria is pushing the legislation as part of an effort to cut opioid addiction and diseases spread from dirty needles. It is expected to be debated on the House floor this week.

Rivero said Arizona needs to join other states in allowing the programs that he said are “the best way to draw addicts in and start getting them into treatment.”

“We can’t keep ignoring these people or relying on our law enforcement to deal with them because that’s not a good use of their time,” Rivero told the Health Committee during a hearing last week. There are needle exchange programs in several parts of the state, but they are run without legal approval. Some law enforcement officials testified that the programs can get people into treatment and save lives.

Kingman Deputy Police Chief Rusty Cooper told the committee that the programs are a good addition to his agency’s effort to prevent overdose deaths by having officers carry medication to counteract opioids.

“Together they provide those suffering from opioid addictions and opioid use disorder an opportunity to get help and establish relationships with those that can provide the help they need while lowering the risk of HIV and hepatitis C,” Cooper said. Kathleen Meyer, a deputy Pima County prosecutor, said exchange programs can help get people into treatment.

“We know that addicts are going to be addicts until we can break them of the cycle,” Meyer said. “And this allows us to interact with them on a community basis to get them into treatment programs.”

Republican Rep. Jay Lawrence of Scottsdale was the only Health Committee member who opposed the bill.

“I think replacing needles on a continuing basis for users of illegal drugs merely encourages them to continue using illegal drugs,” he said.

Dave Cooke, a Scottsdale man whose adult son struggled with heroin addiction for a decade and suffered three infections, said the legislation is sorely needed.

“We struggle as parents and we struggle as a community to get our children to stop using. But in the meantime, they’re going to continue to take risks, and these risks are killing our kids,” Cooke said.