Measure would end syringe exchange limits

ELLSWORTH — While recovery community members support expansion of the Good Samaritan Law to shield those at the scene of an overdose, community members are also lobbying for LD 1909, An Act to Remove Restrictions on Syringe Service Programs, sponsored by state Rep. Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington).

Several people gathered online via the videoconferencing platform Zoom Jan. 24 to discuss the proposal and share information about the health risks and other issues that intravenous drug users face when they don’t have access to an adequate supply of clean needles.

“2021 was the deadliest year for opiates,” McDonald said.

One of McDonald’s frustrations, she said, is meeting people in recovery who now deal with lifelong illnesses that they contracted while reusing or sharing needles.

“It’s a commonsense measure that will help keep more people alive until they can get the help they need,” McDonald said.

The proposed legislation, if passed, would eliminate restrictions on exchanging syringes. Currently, Maine has a “one for one” law. LD 1909 abolishes the one for one rule that people can only get one clean syringe for each used syringe returned and no more than 10 syringes at a time.

One participant said there was no rationale for keeping the syringe cap at 10. Possessing more than 10 syringes at once had been a felony in Maine but that changed last year with passage of LD 994, An Act to Promote Public Health by Eliminating Criminal Penalties for Possession of Hypodermic Apparatuses.

A former intravenous drug user said she had been using on average 12 needles a day.

Dr. Kinna Thakarar, an infectious disease specialist in Portland, has patients who have contracted serious infections through reuse or sharing of needles.

“Maine has one of the highest rates of hepatitis C,” Thakarar said. People reusing syringes or sharing can contract HIV as well as hepatitis B. They can also contract endocarditis, a heart infection resulting in a need for heart valve surgery, she said. Another patient of Thakarar’s was hospitalized for six weeks with a bone infection contracted by needle reuse.

“It would be much easier to prevent the infection through less rigorous needle programs,” Thakarar said.
Another bill supporter said a common concern about syringe services is that they increase “syringe litter,” but that’s not the case.

June Evergreen, harm reduction coordinator for the Health Equity Alliance, runs a syringe exchange in Bangor and in Ellsworth. Between the two locations, 1,500 syringes were distributed last year. “I see firsthand how much passing this will affect our friends for the better,” Evergreen said.

Kari Morisette is executive director of the Church of Safe Injection, which was founded in Maine by the late Jesse Harvey and has since expanded to eight other states.

“As a person in long-term recovery, I know firsthand how essential these services are,” Morissette said. People may not be able to make the choice to wait for a clean syringe, she said. There are risks of abscesses in reusing syringes or sharing them. “Maybe they use someone else’s needle and risk contracting HIV or hepatitis. Those risks are very real for drug users in Maine.”

Testimony about LD 1909 is scheduled to occur in Augusta on Feb. 1 at 1 p.m.

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.

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