COLUMBUS, Ohio - A bill passed by the Ohio House would let communities set up programs for drug users to exchange dirty syringes for clean needles, even without officials declaring a public health emergency.
Backers say the bipartisan bill, passed 72-23 on Wednesday, would help address health concerns linked to Ohio's growing heroin problem by protecting against the spread of hepatitis C, HIV and other infections that can be passed among intravenous drug users through dirty syringes.
Local health boards would establish and pay for their programs. They would be required to report details to the state, properly dispose of used syringes and provide drug users with counseling about disease transmission and references to drug addiction services. Participants would remain anonymous and wouldn't be held criminally liable under current law about the possession of hypodermic needles, as long as certain conditions are met.
"The program sort of slides people from use to treatment in a way that meets them where they're at," Republican Rep. Barbara Sears said, according to The Blade in Toledo.
Some conservative Republicans argue it would enable drug users instead of addressing root problems.
"The answer is treatment, not enablement," said GOP Rep. John Becker, The Columbus Dispatch reported. "There's a reason we don't provide clean shot glasses to alcoholics."
Under current law, needle exchanges can be created in Ohio only with a declared local health emergency. Cleveland and Portsmouth have such programs.
A lead sponsor of the measure, Democratic Rep. Nickie Antonio of Lakewood, told the Dispatch 28 other states allow needle exchanges.
Some of the bill's supporters concede the option isn't popular, but they say it could help.
"People need to understand this huge epidemic we're facing. There is no silver bullet," GOP Rep. Ryan Smith of Gallipolis told the Dispatch.
The legislation now goes to the state Senate.