Make needle exchanges legal throughout Texas

Elizabeth Braaten

In October of 2017, Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency within the United States. Despite this, the administration has failed to provide additional funding beyond the meager $57,000 already available in the Public Health Emergency Fund. Public health experts estimate a serious response to effectively alleviating the crisis would cost nearly $183 billion over the course of the next decade. The response from the federal government thus far to the skyrocketing opioid death rate is sorely lacking. 

Harm reduction policies, which aim to reduce the harms associated with drug use, are becoming more prominent across the country. Needle exchange programs, which allow drug users to exchange dirty syringes for clean ones at no cost, attempt to fill the gap left by the federal government in making strides to mitigate this public health crisis. Although needle exchange programs are still not legal in Texas, there are around 185 of these programs across the United States. In order to combat the opioid epidemic, which is estimated to kill around 500,000 Americans within the next decade, Texas policymakers must make the legalization of needle exchange programs a priority during the 2019 legislative session. There’s no community that’s not affected by this — including ours. 

Allowing drug users to exchange dirty needles for clean ones facilitates direct medical benefits as well as connections to health services within the community. Needle exchange programs have been shown to reduce infection rates of bloodborne diseases, such as HIV, as users are provided with clean needles to safely inject. These programs also provide essential services geared toward substance abuse treatment and disease prevention, such as HIV testing and referrals to potential
rehabilitation facilities.

These organizations make the safe disposal of dirty syringes possible, reducing the possibility that civil servants or members of the community come into contact with them and become infected with a serious illness. 

Finally, these programs save communities money. Only one person infected with HIV through a dirty needle will, on average, require at least $120,000 per year in public health expenses. But it only costs $160,000, or $20 per user, for a city to run a needle
exchange program for a year. 

If Texas taxpayers are uncomfortable with providing state funds for a program they view as enabling drug users, then policymakers should, at the least, make it legal for these organizations to take private donations. The Austin Harm Reduction Coalition is a needle exchange program already in operation, but it relies on a mutual understanding with the Austin Police Department that they won’t be shut down.

If programs like the one run by the ARHC were made legal, the increased publicity would allow more people to comfortably donate money, making these operations possible, even without state funds. Furthermore, it would also increase the amount of people using the service, as patrons would feel protected from possible legal consequences for doing so. 

It’s time to face the facts: The opioid epidemic will only get worse if we refuse to do anything about it. By legalizing needle exchange programs throughout the state of Texas, the number of deaths involving opioids would decline, and new HIV infections, as well as of other bloodborne diseases,
would plummet. 

It could be your best friend. Your neighbor. Your family member. Talk to your representatives now about the legalization of these programs. Donate to the Austin Harm Reduction Coalition. Your community depends on it. 

Braaten is an international relations and global studies junior from Conroe.