“Not every human problem deserves a law” unless the laws are the problem

Governor Jerry Brown has proclaimed that, “Not every human problem deserves a law.”  

He’s definitely right.  However, there are laws on the books right now that worsen human suffering, contribute to contagion, and burden the state’s healthcare budget.  We’ll need his help fixing those.

Case in point: state drug paraphernalia laws make it a crime to possess a syringe for personal drug use, and also make it illegal for a pharmacist to sell, or a physician or public health worker to provide a sterile syringe without a prescription. Back in the 70s-before AIDS–these laws were intended to reduce heroin use.

That didn’t work. However, government-created syringe scarcity did contribute to the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis among people who use drugs, who were infected by shared syringes, as well as their partners and children.  

In the last 30 years, most states responded to that health crisis by amending their laws to establish syringe access programs in areas of high need. All but three states now allow pharmacists to sell syringes over-the-counter without a prescription. California is one of those three states.

Science is on the side of pragmatism. Over 200 studies concur: allowing adults to access sterile syringes reduces the rates of disease, without contributing to increased drug use or crime. On the contrary, syringe access programs are very effective at connecting people to drug treatment.

Still, California lags behind almost every other state.  Rather than having statewide policies to prevent the suffering and high costs associated with preventable diseases, our statutes require a vote of local politicians to decide whether they will allow good disease prevention policy. This has given undue leverage to social conservatives and the tough-on-drugs lobby to block action in most parts of the state.

As a matter of public health, it is irrational to expect viruses to respect county lines-bad disease control policy in one county threatens the health of neighboring counties. Los Angeles, for instance has good disease control policy, but is surrounded by counties without the will or wisdom to allow syringe access.

As a matter of fiscal policy, it is irrational for the State to pay millions of dollars each year for healthcare for people infected with HIV and hepatitis, but lack the flexibility to authorize programs proven to prevent these diseases.  Bad health policy in do-nothing jurisdictions hurts taxpayers everywhere.

Two bills on the Governor’s desk can help reduce human suffering and reckless spending by dialing down political interference with pharmacist and physician practice, and establishing a state-local collaboration to control HIV and hepatitis.

SB 41 by Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) would allow pharmacists the discretion to sell 30 or fewer syringes to an adult without a prescription, or not, according to their ethics and training.  This is a baseline, no-cost policy that would allow adults statewide to spend their own money to protect their health and that of their communities.

AB 604 by Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would allow local programs to apply to the state Department of Public Health to add syringe access services to prevent HIV and hepatitis transmission. The Department would consult with the local health officer, the local sheriff or police chief, and provide for 90 days of public comment, before authorizing such a program.

Yee and Skinner’s bills have overwhelming support from physicians, nurses, pharmacists, HIV and hepatitis C advocates, as well as the Board of Pharmacy and retail pharmacy chains.

Californians deserves equal protection from disease, no matter where they live. And California taxpayers deserve protection from the high cost of bad disease prevention policy.  

If bad laws are the source of suffering, Governor Brown has the last word on whether they are fixed or they fester. We should all hope that he would not ratify the unsafe status quo. He should sign AB 604 and SB 41.

Laura Thomas is the deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.