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Bill to legalize clean syringe programs advances in Pa. House

Rep. Jim Struzzi (R, Indiana) is the bill's co-sponsor. He addressed the state House Judiciary Committee before a vote on HB 1245.
Pa. House Video
Rep. Jim Struzzi (R, Indiana) is the bill's co-sponsor. He addressed the state House Judiciary Committee before a vote on HB 1245.

Updated Feb. 16, 11:25 a.m. to include comment from Rep. Jim Rigby:

The state House Judiciary Committee Wednesday advanced a bill that would legalize clean needle programs statewide. If it passes a House floor vote in the Democratic-controlled chamber, HB 1245 faces an uncertain fate in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Jim Struzzi (R, 62nd) of Indiana County, addressed the committee before the vote, saying clean needle programs reduce the transmission of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.

“From my perspective it’s about getting people help, it’s about reducing our overall healthcare cost, and really giving people in Pennsylvania hope,” Struzzi said, “and I would add that we are only one of ten states that do not allow this in the United States.”

Expanding syringe programs throughout the state would help people enter recovery and “give people hope,” Struzzi added. “You have it in your head that it’s just someone handing out syringes basically on the streets and it is absolutely not what this is.”

Currently, groups in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh openly operate sterile syringe programs, disposing of used needles and offering clean ones with the support of county and city executive orders protecting their work. It’s a public health approach that’s championed by harm reduction advocates. Advocates elsewhere in the state have mostly operated these services without public funding. Legalization could change that.

Supporters highlighted statistics in support of the bill. Those who have access to clean syringe programs are five times more likely to enter addiction treatment compared to those without them. A study on Philadelphia’s program estimates public health workers prevented about 10,000 HIV cases due to the clean needle exchange there.

Opponents of the bill say they don’t want to enable IV drug users.

Rep. Paul Schemel (R, 90th) said he could not support the current form of the bill.

“I certainly understand the very good intention of this legislation,” Schemel said. “I even understand the data may support that it does do a net good, but because it violates this bright line where we as policymakers would be enabling an evil to achieve that good, that’s a slippery slope that I cannot go down.”

The committee vote on syringe services programs passed mostly on party lines, with all 14 Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Jim Rigby (R, 71st), supporting the bill. Rigby serves parts of Cambria and Somerset counties.

Formerly the police chief in Ferndale borough just outside Johnstown, Rigby said he had to notify two families that their children died due to an opioid overdose. Those experiences stuck with him. One of the men graduated high school with Rigby’s son in the borough of about 1,500 people, according to most recent Census data. That man’s addiction started with a high school sports injury, Rigby said.

“He blew out his knee playing football,” was prescribed opioid painkillers and later began using street drugs, Rigby said. Addiction is often more complicated than an individual’s choice to start using illicit drugs, he added. “Let’s get more discussions going about it.”

Former Sen. Patrick Browne (R, 16th) introduced an identical bill in the state Senate during the 2021-2022 session, but the legislation never moved out of committee.

Advocates with the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network celebrated the committee’s support of the bill.

“PA-HRN is incredibly grateful for all the organizations and community members who took the time to contact their elected officials,” the groups said in a statement on social media. “Over 11,000 letters were sent to the House Judiciary Committee and it is only because of your unwavering support that we are now one step closer to Syringe Services Programs for ALL Pennsylvanians!”

The harm reduction group plans to hold a rally on April 8 at the Capitol in support of clean syringe programs.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's All Things Considered. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.

You can email Tom at tomriese@wvia.org
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