Colorado legislators approved not one, but two measures aimed at reducing the harms of drug use this week. Both a syringe exchange bill and a naloxone provision bill passed the legislature and now head for the governor's desk.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]The first measure, Senate Bill 208, expands on the Clean Syringe Exchange bill passed in 2010, which exempted staff and volunteers -- but not exchange participants -- from drug paraphernalia possession charges. That left actual injection drug users making use of the exchange at risk for being arrested for carrying clean or used syringes.
This year's bill adds participants to the categories of the protected. Now, participants in the state's six syringe exchange programs -- in Denver, Boulder, Grand Junction, and Fort Collins -- will be able to carry clean syringes and return used ones for proper disposal without fear of arrest.
The second bill, Senate Bill 14, authorizes anyone who might witness an opiate overdose to be prescribed and administer the opioid overdose reversal drug Naloxone. Naloxone has been shown repeatedly to safe lives by reducing the number of opioid drug overdose deaths.
Both bills were supported by the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center, the state Department of Public Health and Environment, and the Drug Policy Alliance. The syringe exchange bill was also supported by the, Denver Colorado AIDS Project, Boulder County Public Health, and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, while the Naloxone bill was also supported by the Colorado Medical Society, the Colorado Psychiatric Society, the Colorado Provider's Association, the Colorado Behavioral Health Council, and Mental Health America of Colorado.
Last fall, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) vetoed the Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act (Assembly Bill 578), which would have provided limited legal protection to people who witness a drug overdose and summon help. But on Tuesday, Christie changed his tune, reaching an agreement with legislative leaders to include Good Samaritan language in another overdose prevention bill that is sitting on his desk.
[image:1 align:left]The legislature had meanwhile passed Assembly Bill 3095 to expand access to the opioid overdose antidote naloxone. Under the agreement with legislators, Christie conditionally vetoed that bill and agreed to add the Good Samaritan language. The legislature then reconvened, passing the amended measure by votes of 24-1 in the Senate and 68-2 in the House.
The Good Samaritan language Christie agreed to is less broad than envisioned in AB 578, but advocates said it still contains the most important protections for an effective Good Samaritan bill -- it would protect individuals from arrest and prosecution for drug possession charges as well as protection from revocation of parole and probation.
"My family and I are so thankful for this compromise," said Patty DiRenzo of Blackwood, whose son Salvatore died of an overdose at age 27. "We, and the other families who have lost loved ones to overdose, look forward to the day that Governor Christie signs this life-saving bill. It's extremely important that we prevent future overdose deaths and spare other families the grief that mine has endured."
"We are incredibly grateful to the governor and legislative leadership and sponsors of these bills for working so hard to reach an agreement on this life-saving legislation,” said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for Drug Policy Alliance.
As prescription drug overdose numbers have mounted in the past decade, an increasing number of states have adopted measures such as Good Samaritan laws and widening the availability of naloxone in a bid to reduce the death toll. California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Washington have all passed both kinds of law, while Colorado and Florida have passed Good Samaritan laws and Virginia has passed a naloxone law.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released its 2013 National Drug Control Strategy Wednesday. The strategy is being billed as a "21st Century Approach" to drug use and trafficking, but despite some rhetorical softening maintains the US hard-line approach to the issue.
[image:1 align:left]"The president has outlined his vision of an America built to last -- where an educated, skilled workforce has the knowledge, energy and expertise to compete in the global marketplace. Yet -- for far too many Americans -- that vision is limited by drug use, which not only diminishes the potential of the individual, but jeopardizes families, communities and neighborhoods," ONDCP wrote on a blog post announcing the strategy's release and touting reductions in cocaine and prescription drug abuse as progress made.
"Today we are releasing a science-driven plan for drug policy reform in America to build upon this progress," ONDCP continued. "This 21st century drug policy outlines a series of evidence-based reforms that treat our nation's drug problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue. This policy underscores what we all know to be true: we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem."
The strategy emphasizes treatment and prevention, but despite the rhetoric, the Fiscal Year 2014 federal drug budget it accompanies continues to be imbalanced, with 58% of federal anti-drug spending directed at law enforcement and interdiction efforts. That figure does mark a decline from previous years, but only a marginal one.
And even its emphasis on treatment also includes punitive criminal justice elements, such as its embrace of the drug court system, where drug-addicted people are subjected to legal sanctions for such addiction-related behaviors as failing a drug test or missing an appointment. That has some drug reformers calling foul.
"The administration says drug use is a health issue but then advocates for policies that put people in the criminal justice system," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Until the drug czar says it is time to stop arresting people for drug use, he is not treating drug use as a health issue no matter what he says. I know of no other health issue in which people are thrown in jail if they don't get better."
While much of the strategy is little more than the same old same old, the strategy does call for expanded access to naloxone, a low-cost antidote that can reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. That is in response to the rapid growth in prescription drug overdose deaths in recent years.
"Director Kerlikowske should be applauded for taking steps to reduce drug overdose fatalities, but he's not doing much to reduce drug arrests or the many other problems associated with treating drug use through the criminal justice system," said Piper.
But while the drug strategy shows flexibility in its efforts to deal with fatal drug overdoses, it maintains a staunch opposition to marijuana reform and includes attacking outdoor and indoor marijuana cultivation as one of its key goals.
"The administration's continued opposition to marijuana law reform shows they're not serious about reforming US drug policy," said Piper. "At the very least they should stop getting in the way of states that are trying to improve public health and safety by regulating marijuana like alcohol."