The state is considering an unorthodox approach to dealing with drug addiction, as two bills being debated would ease up possession laws slightly in order to encourage addicts to turn in their illicit drugs or swap their dirty needles for clean ones.
Some police stations already post boxes for drug take-back programs in New Hampshire, but those are only for prescription drugs. A bill in the House would allow illicit drugs like heroin to be deposited in similar programs.
“I thought if we could make it available on an ongoing basis and included illicit drugs and paraphernalia, we’d get some of the needles off the street, some of the other paraphernalia off the street,” said State Rep. Victoria Sullivan, the bill’s sponsor.
Sullivan, a Republican from Manchester, says she has come around on supporting drug courts after not backing them originally, but she says drug courts still only target the people bargaining for their freedom.
“I want to have something for the people that wake up in the morning after a night of doing drugs and decide that that’s the day they want to change their lives and they have some place to go to turn in what they have on them and get the help that they need,” Sullivan said.
The bill she originally drafted would have provided blanket amnesty from possession charges for those making deposits, but after some pushback from law enforcement, Sullivan tweaked the language so police could use their discretion when they levy charges.
“A lot of minds and hearts need to be changed on this, because they really did struggle with the amnesty portion of it. They thought I was presenting a bill that would legalize drugs, which isn’t the case at all,” Sullivan said.
Still, with shifting attitudes among members of law enforcement around prosecuting addicts, it’s assumed they would largely turn a blind eye to those who want to drop off their drugs and seek help for their addiction.
“Change does not come quickly. So, sometimes we have to be happy with the incremental changes that we can get,” Sullivan said.
If the bill passes, it would also make it possible for drug take-back programs to crop up across the state and through nonprofits, according to Sullivan, which may prove to be an environment addicts will see as more safe from prosecution.
Another bill, along the same lines as the drug take-back bill, would let users off the hook from possession charges if they drop off used needles and syringes with trace amounts of a controlled substance in them.
Republican State Rep. Joe Hannon of Lee sponsored the bill.
“I was trying to make it easier for people to get clean needles and to allow syringe exchange programs,” Hannon said.
Hannon is a physician and says he’s doing this in an effort to curb the spread of dangerous diseases like HIV and hepatitis C through used syringes.
Needle exchange programs like those that exist in Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts are not allowed in New Hampshire because it’s illegal to have a dirty needle, Hannon says.
“Even if someone wanted to safely dispose of the dirty needle, there’s no minimum amount [of heroin] or residual amount that’s allowed to be in a dirty syringe or needle. If there’s any amount at all that can be detectable by any method, you can potentially do up to seven years in prison for a felony possession charge of heroin,” Hannon said.
While law enforcement voiced some concerns about the bill, he is confident the bill will pass and they’ll come around.
“They’ve grumbled in every state that’s done this,” Hannon said.
For those who suggest it’s enabling addicts to use more, he said there’s a lot of data that suggests that’s not true. And, he said, it may save the state money on healthcare costs.
He says 70 percent of IV drug users contract hepatitis C after a year and about 15 percent get HIV.
Both bills passed the House, but the needle exchange bill was sent to the Criminal Justice Committee. It passed the committee unchanged with a tie vote and is scheduled to return to the floor for another vote.