New Legislation Clarifies Confusion Around Lawful Syringe Possession

Human Rights

Governor Paterson recently signed into law a measure that will make New York communities safer and healthier by promoting syringe access to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. By reconciling inconsistencies in state law regarding syringe possession, the new law should eliminate police harassment and arrests of drug users who legally posses new and used syringes. Ideally, it will go even further by improving the relationship between police and users, which is now characterized by extreme fear and distrust as a result of the war on drugs and people who use them.

I'm tired of being seen by the police as a criminal when I take responsibility for my health by using clean syringes and practicing harm reduction. My interactions with police have always been negative, leaving me feeling that my dignity, self-esteem and pride have been dropped to the ground along with my purse after every stop and search. Policies that dehumanize drug users encourage this kind of approach, which becomes easier when we're viewed as junkies, dope fiends, and lowlifes that lack basic rights. The drug war policies and attitudes simply do not work, have never worked and will never work because we cannot eliminate drugs - or the people who use them. Moreover, there is a growing understanding among users that we have certain rights and deserve a more just approach.

The first time I got clean syringes from a public health program, I was stopped by police and locked up within a few minutes of leaving the site. A couple police officers stopped and searched me in a "red zone," an area where everyone is suspect, and asked what I had in my bag. I refused to tell them anything, which is a typical response by users who are afraid of being arrested for carrying syringes. As soon as they found the syringes, they asked me turn around and put on the handcuffs. They wouldn't let me show documentation that the syringes were legal or a card with a special explanation for law enforcement. I spent the next 36 hours sick in a holding cell while withdrawing from heroin.

After that, I felt like I'd be safer staying underground instead of going to syringe access programs, which I thought would make me a target for police. Even though they're publicly funded and sanctioned under our state's Public Health Law, I felt the programs were allowing users to be set-up and couldn't be trusted. This wasn't just my experience - a report published by VOCAL Users Union found that 71% of drug injectors interviewed had been arrested for syringe possession, with one-third going to syringe access programs less often or not all as a result. Inconsistencies in state law have led to confusion among police and unnecessary arrests for syringe possession, with a chilling effect that discourages participation in the programs.

Thankfully, nearly two decades after New York's first permanent legal syringe exchange began in response to the HIV epidemic, our state's Penal Code now clarifies it is legal to possess new syringes and used ones containing residue when they are obtained through a public health program. Furthermore, the new law requires ongoing education for law enforcement, which is crucial for effective implementation on the ground. The new law protects all segments of the community, from reducing the risk of accidental needle-stick injuries to police to encouraging safer disposal of used syringes.

There's an assumption that drug users don't care about ourselves or others, and that the future is the furthest thing from our minds. Intense stigma still means many people believe a junkie gets what she deserves and that HIV and hepatitis C is one punishment. The reality is that we all want to take care of our health but face laws and policing that makes it hard to do so.

The challenge now is to make sure the new law is implemented in a way that improves participation in syringe access programs by ending police harassment and arrest for syringe possession. This law can't be forgotten on the bottom of a stack of papers on a police lieutenant's desk. We need to make sure officers understand and respect drug policies rooted in public health, and that possessing new and used syringes isn't a crime but a responsible action that promotes community health. We need law enforcement to use a new approach and new set of attitudes in dealing with drug use. Aren't we all trying to be part of a thriving, healthier and fairer society?

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