State High Court Rules Private Needle Exchange Programs Are Legal

New syringes await distribution by a Washington program in 2008. (Lauren Victoria Burke/AP File)
New syringes await distribution by a Washington program in 2008. (Lauren Victoria Burke/AP File)

The highest court in Massachusetts ruled Wednesday that privately run hypodermic needle exchange programs can be operated without state or community approval.

The Supreme Judicial Court's ruling that allows the nonprofit AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod to continue operating in the town of Barnstable ends a yearslong legal battle.

The AIDS Support Group has, since 2009, been providing clean needles to stem the spread of HIV and hepatitis C among drug addicts. It serves about 450 people.

The town in 2015 issued a cease-and-desist order saying the organization needed health board approval. The town made its own public health argument, saying discarded needles endangered the public.

The high court agreed with the nonprofit, which said a 2006 state law that decriminalized the possession and distribution of hypodermic needles overrode a 1993 law that required needle exchange programs to have state and municipal approval.

"The statutory language is clear that programs such as ASGCC's are not prohibited, the legislative history does not evidence an intent to the contrary, and interpreting the two statutes to allow private entities to operate nonsale needle exchange programs does not give rise to an absurd result," the court said in its decision.

"This decision will mean the difference between life and death for people struggling with addiction," said Ben Klein, a lawyer for the AIDS Support Group. Klein is director of the AIDS Law Project at GLAD, an LGBTQ legal defense organization.

The needle exchange is located in the village of Hyannis, a top tourist destination in town.

"Barnstable put their image as a tourist town above protecting people's lives," Klein said.

The town is "profoundly disappointed" with the court's decision, assistant town attorney Charlie McLaughlin said in a statement.

He called it absurd that the state Legislature can allow municipalities to regulate marijuana businesses, but not the distribution of hypodermic needles.

This article was originally published on June 14, 2017.



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