Albany — Governor Paterson signed legislation today clarifying that people who participate in a syringe access program can lawfully possess sterile syringes and cannot be arrested or charged with drug possession for residue in used syringes. The bill requires New York‘s Department of Criminal Justice Services to inform law enforcement and prosecutors of the rights of those who possess new and used syringes. The measure will reduce transmission of HIV and Hep C, increase access to life-saving programs, and ensure proper disposal of used syringes.
The new law resolves a conflict between New York‘s Penal Law and the state’s Public Health Law. For years, New York‘s Public Health Law allowed people to possess syringes who participate in syringe exchange programs or in the Expanded Syringe Access Program (ESAP). However, the Public Health Law provision that allowed syringe possession was never put into the Penal Code. Unaware of the Public Health Law, police continued to harass and arrest program participants, leading to a chilling effect that decreased access to clean syringes and prevented proper disposal of used ones. In addition, police also exposed themselves to accidental “needle sticks” because participants, fearing arrest, would not be forthcoming about the used syringes in their belongings.
“Making sure our public health and criminal justice policies are in synch means more people will participate in syringe access programs that are a gateway to better community health,” said Jill Reeves, a leader in VOCAL NY Users Union. “This law will also reduce the ‘us versus them’ mentality in our interactions with police officers when it comes to syringe possession, which will make our communities safer. People shouldn’t be arrested for trying to keep themselves from getting HIV and Hep C.”
The evidence on syringe exchange programs is clear: In New York City, they have expanded access to clean syringes, leading to dramatic health benefits: HIV/AIDS transmissions amongst intravenous drug users dropped by 75% between 1990 and 2001. Along with access to clean syringes and safe disposal of used ones, exchanges offer HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C testing, condoms, counseling, and referrals to drug treatment. The clarification of the law — bringing the Penal Law into accordance with the Public Health law — will lead to increased access to these life-saving programs.
Governor Paterson drafted legislation to reconcile the discrepancy, and Senators Duane and Schneiderman, and Assemblymembers Gottfried and Lentol, introduced and championed the bill.
This new public health approach to drug use comes on the heels of the historic reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws that were passed last year. The reforms gave discretion to judges, increased funding for treatment and other alternatives to incarceration, and allowed some people with low-level drug offenses to apply for resentencing.
“We thank Governor Paterson and Albany leadership for continuing to shift substance use from a criminal justice to a public health issue,” said Evan Goldstein of the Drug Policy Alliance. “This law will help ensure that syringe access programs can fulfill their mission of improving the health and safety of New Yorkers.”