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A bill to legalize syringe services in Pennsylvania faces many challenges

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

People who work in addiction recovery say providing sterile syringes to people who use illegal drugs can help them because it can be a bridge to other services like treatment. But a number of states don't allow this. WESA's Sarah Boden brings us a story from Pennsylvania.

SARAH BODEN, BYLINE: Kim Botteicher is a conservative Catholic, a mother of seven, and some would say she's also a criminal because she has these syringe kits.

KIM BOTTEICHER: So they get the package of needles. They get the card, the directions on how to use them.

BODEN: In this remote pocket of the Allegheny Mountains, Botteicher leads a nonprofit focused on addiction and recovery. Most of the time, she runs support groups and helps clients find housing, jobs and health care. And on very rare occasions, she says, she has provided sterile syringes to people who use drugs.

BOTTEICHER: When that person comes in the door, if they are covered with abscesses because they have been using needles that are dirty or they've been sharing needles, maybe they've got hep C, we see that as, OK, this is our first step.

BODEN: Under Pennsylvania law, when syringes are used to inject illegal drugs, they're considered drug paraphernalia, and dispensing them is a misdemeanor. Though unlikely, Botteicher could be arrested and prosecuted for this. But she says it's worth it.

BOTTEICHER: You know, are they going to quit overnight because we asked them to? Nope. So let's help them stay well until we can get them to that point.

BODEN: Now there's a push to legalize sterile syringe services across Pennsylvania. State Representative Jim Struzzi is sponsoring the bill. Struzzi is a Republican and hasn't always supported this policy. That changed after his brother died in 2014 from a drug overdose.

JIM STRUZZI: I didn't fully understand addiction myself. I thought, well, just quit. But that's not possible for people that suffer from substance abuse disorder.

BODEN: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say syringe programs prevent the spread of bloodborne viruses like HIV, and people who use them are far more likely to enter treatment. But the law needs to change quickly, advocates say. That's because billions of dollars are now flowing into Pennsylvania and other states after lawsuits were settled with companies involved in the opioid epidemic. These settlements explicitly allow some of the money to be used for syringe programs - but not in rural Pennsylvania. For example, Kim Botteicher's organization was set to get $150,000 in settlement money, but the grant was pulled because she has distributed syringes.

BOTTEICHER: If it's something that's going to help someone, then why is it illegal?

BODEN: The state's two major cities have found ways around this legal obstacle. Local officials in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia issued special protections years ago to allow syringe programs. Other cities and counties in Pennsylvania could do that, says Scott Burris, a professor at Temple University's law school in Philly. But it might not work in more conservative areas.

SCOTT BURRIS: If there's not backing, if actually a lot of people in the community think it's a terrible idea, it may be hard to run the needle exchange.

BODEN: In the meantime, opioid settlement dollars aren't going to last forever, and many communities might lose out on the chance to stop the damage from the drug epidemic. Ultimately, Burris says, state lawmakers have to step up.

BURRIS: The real issue here is why hasn't the legislature joined the states all around us that have authorized needle exchange and taken away the chilling effect, and the fear that you might get in trouble?

BODEN: The bill to legalize syringe services has moved forward in the Pennsylvania House. The next step would be a floor vote.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Boden in Pittsburgh.

MARTIN: This story was reported with Ed Mahon of the investigative news group Spotlight PA in partnership with KFF Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Boden covers health, science and technology for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.