Senate Committee passes bill legalizing needle exchange

Programs that give drug users clean needles in exchange for used ones would become legal in Georgia, under a proposal that cleared a Senate committee Monday.

The Senate Committee on Health and Human Services unanimously approved the bill, sending it to the full Senate. The measure has already cleared the state House.

Needle exchange programs aim to reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C infections among drug users who share needles.

At least 29 states, including Georgia, have no laws authorizing needle exchange programs. Nineteen states have laws explicitly allowing these programs to operate.

Republican Rep. Houston Gaines of Athens, the bill's author, said the proposal will "save lives and money."

"We don't want anyone, including those who inject drugs, to contract these infections," Gaines said, adding that President Donald Trump has said dealing with the HIV epidemic is a priority in his State of the Union speech.

Georgia has one of the highest rates of new HIV cases in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the estimated lifetime cost of treating one HIV patient is more than $400,000. The CDC also notes that people who inject drugs are five times as likely to enter substance abuse treatment if they use a needle exchange program.

Savannah Republican Sen. Ben Watson, who chairs the committee, said getting such a high proportion of clients into treatment was "remarkable."

Testifying for the bill was Dr. Mojgan Zare, executive director of Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, a needle exchange program that already operates in Georgia despite the absence of an official law authorizing such initiatives.

"These services are plug-ins for people who inject drugs to come in and have a way to have meaningful conversations and be connected to treatment centers and other services," Zare said.

Jocelyn Whitfield, director of government relations for Grady Health System, also testified in favor of the bill, saying needle exchange programs are evidence-based public health interventions that work. Whitfield said Grady treats a quarter of AIDs patients across Georgia.