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Advocates Urge Arizona Gov. Ducey To Legalize Needle Exchanges

Opioid Epidemic
Will Stone/KJZZ
file | staff
Needle exchanges remain illegal in Arizona, despite support from public health groups.

Public health advocates are urging Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to legalize needle exchange programs.

A letter delivered to the governor’s office this week says it’s a deeply needed response to the state’s drug overdose crisis.

“Too many lives are on the line to continue with the status quo,” the letter states.

It’s signed by more than 30 organizations involved in public health and addiction recovery.

Those include the Arizona Public Health Association, Arizona Society of Addiction Medicine, Southwest Behavioral Health Services and the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office.

“Arizona has fallen behind in its response to this national crisis, states like North Carolina, Indiana, and Kentucky have all implemented syringe service legislation and are seeing the benefits in their communities,” the letter says. 

Needle exchanges — also known as syringe service programs — remain illegal under Arizona’s drug laws. That has led some programs to operate under the radar and without public funding.

The letter praises Ducey and lawmakers for passing the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act earlier this year. The bipartisan legislation expanded access to addiction treatment, placed new restrictions on prescribing and increased oversight.

It did not, however, include any provision to legalize syringe exchanges, despite calls from advocates to do so.  

“There is a misconception that it is only about the exchange of used and clean syringes,” said Sarah Fynmore, who is the policy coordinator for Sonoran Prevention Works — a nonprofit that does outreach to drug users and signed the letter, too.

“But really syringe service programs are resource points for behavioral health support, for HIV and Hepatitis C testing and for accessing naloxone.”

Fynmore’s nonprofit distributes the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and advocates for harm reduction policies.

Syringe service programs reduce the spread of infectious diseases, don’t promote drug use and increase the chance an IV drug user will actually seek out treatment,  according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even with early support, efforts to legalize syringe exchanges failed in the 2018 legislative session.

In February, the Arizona House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that would have allowed IV drug users to exchange dirty needles for clean ones without fear of arrest.

The bill underwent major changes in the Arizona Senate, some of which supporters warned could actually backfire and make the problem worse.  

The legislation eventually died in committee and supporters of the bill said the governor opposed the idea, although Ducey never took an official position. The governor's office did not return requests for comment about the letter and whether he supports legalizing syringe exchanges in the coming session.

State Rep. Tony Rivero, a Republican from the West Valley, sponsored the bill and plans to introduce a similar one next year. 

“It’s going to be one of my top legislative priorities,” Rivero said. “We attack two problems at once: engaging people, trying to get them off drugs and also getting dirty needles off the streets.”

Rivero said he is optimistic they can get the bill through the legislature this time.

“We are going to work even harder, engage the Senate, the leadership and the governor’s office also,” Rivero said.

Syringe Service Programs Letter to Gov. Ducey

Will Stone grew up with the sounds of public radio. As a senior field correspondent, he strives to tell the same kind of powerful stories that got him into the business — whether that means trudging through some distant corner of the Sonoran Desert or uncovering an unknown injustice right down the street. Since joining the KJZZ newsroom in 2015, he has covered political scandals, fights over the future of energy, and efforts to care for some of Arizona’s most vulnerable communities. His pieces have also aired on national programs like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here & Now and Marketplace. Before coming to KJZZ, he reported for public radio stations in Nevada and Connecticut. Stone received his degree in English literature from Haverford College, where he also wrote about the arts and culture scene in Philadelphia. After graduating, he interned at NPR West in Culver City, California, where he learned from some of the network’s veteran reporters and editors. When he doesn’t have a mic in hand, Stone enjoys climbing mountains, running through his central Phoenix neighborhood and shamelessly promoting his cat, Barry.