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Statewide safe syringe program on legislative radar


(The Center Square) — After legalizing fentanyl test strips last session, the Pennsylvania House wants to expand its harm reduction approach by allowing syringe services.

Though it has some bipartisan support, many House Republicans caution against such a move, concerned about safety in already-suffering neighborhoods.

A House Judiciary Committee meeting on Wednesday voted 15-10 to advance a bill that would allow syringe services programs statewide.

House Bill 1245 would exempt needles that are part of these programs from classification as drug paraphernalia. It would also require participants in the exchange to have an ID card to separate harm-reduction programs from general drug use.

The programs aim to connect drug users to resources for treatment, replace dirty needles with clean ones, and can also provide testing, counseling and other health care services. The CDC argues the programs are “safe, effective, and cost-saving.”

The bill received the support of all Democratic members of the committee but faced opposition from all Republicans except for Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana.

“If you take the time to read the legislation, this is a very formal program that we’re trying to legalize here in Pennsylvania,” Struzzi said. “People who participate in syringe services programs are five times more likely to get into treatment. It’s about getting people help, reducing our overall health care costs, and giving people hope. We’re one out of only ten states that still do not allow them.”

Syringe programs already operate in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but a lack of state law authorizing them has created problems. In Westmoreland County, officials recently pulled back $150,000 in opioid trust money from a recovery group that planned to offer syringe exchanges, citing legal concerns.

Democrats argued the bill would save lives.

“Harm reduction and recovery work,” said Rep. Joe Hohenstein, D-Philadelphia. “If we take away the hope or possibility of recovery from people, then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy that no one will ever recover. When we approach substance use disorder and drug addiction, we need to be able to move from places of hope and safety, and safety for people living with addiction and safety for the surrounding communities.”

But Republicans worried that supplying syringes for drug use crossed a moral line.

“Never do evil to achieve good,” said Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Waynesboro. “I don’t necessarily question the data that support more people going into treatment, but I have to look at the policy itself and say, ‘What am I doing to achieve the good?’ In this situation, where we’d allow for the provision of the very instrumentality of abuse, I believe that that breaches that philosophical principle.”

Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Pittsburgh, argued the programs have been “incredibly effective” at reducing harm.

“Safe syringe programs give people the ability to seek out trusted care in order to preserve their lives and gives them an opportunity for recovery. That’s what harm reduction is,” she said. “It’s not doing an evil — it is helping people get to a place where they are ready to receive recovery.”

The Democrats narrowly control the Pennsylvania House, and Gov. Josh Shapiro supports the programs “when administered correctly,” but the proposal may not survive the Republican-controlled Senate. A similar bill in 2021 never made it out of the Judiciary Committee.

“I think we can get this to a point where everyone can support it,” Struzzi said after the committee vote. “If we don’t do anything, nothing’s gonna change.”