The Montana state code isn't friendly to syringe exchange programs. The state's only public syringe exchange, Missoula's Open Aid Alliance, operates in a legal "gray area," according to Executive Director Christa Weathers. Under state paraphernalia laws, her nonprofit could be suspected of drug distribution simply because it keeps clean needles and other sterile injection equipment on site.
"We've worked in cooperation with local law enforcement," Weathers says. "But if someone wanted to shut down this operation, absolutely they could."
SB 228, proposed by state Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, would exempt syringe exchanges from paraphernalia laws. Ankney says that when he introduced the bill at a Feb. 17 Public Health Committee hearing, some legislators were new to the concept of "harm reduction." Or, as he put it, "They look at you like you're a bastard calf. It ain't something that comes into your life often if you're from, say, Wibaux, or Colstrip, for that matter."
Nonetheless, syringe exchanges make sense to Ankney as a way to prevent drug users from contracting bloodborne diseases. "Contracting AIDS or hepatitis C is expensive, and that cost falls on the taxpayer," he says. "Even if you're a stone-cold conservative, it makes sense to prevent that."
Weathers says she's been in contact with a county health agency elsewhere in the state that wants to launch a syringe exchange if the law passes. She sees exchanges as a vital gateway to services like housing assistance, STD testing, counseling and addiction treatment. In its first two years of operation, from 2013 to 2015, the exchange distributed 80,000 needles to hundreds of clients throughout western Montana.
"Research shows that people associated with syringe exchanges are 5 to 7 times more likely to enter addiction treatment at some point, Weathers says. "We're trying to reduce harm and keep people safe until they're ready to make a change."
Another harm-reduction bill supported by Weathers is already poised to become law. The Help Save Lives from Overdose Act, HB 333, authorizes public agencies and private citizens to carry naloxone, an opioid antagonist that helps prevent death by overdose. HB 333 passed the House on unanimous vote on Feb. 20 and will be transmitted to the Senate.