AIDS activists are hailing a state-agency vote taken last month that clears the way for the purchase of needles and syringes in Pennsylvania without a prescription.
In a 4-0 vote on July 23, the state Independent Regulatory Review Commission approved the new rule — which also has no minimum-age requirement for syringe purchasers and no cap on the number of needles and syringes that can be purchased at one time.
Commissioner Nancy S. Frantz abstained from the vote.
The new rule will cover about 3,364 pharmacies in Pennsylvania.
In June 2009, the state House of Representatives’ Professional Licensure Committee voted 24-0 to approve the new rule.
AIDS activists say the increased availability of clean needles will help reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS among injection-drug users.
“This has been a many-year effort, and we’re glad to be seeing a whole lot of light at the end of the tunnel,” said Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. “We’re pleased that state officials understand that the availability of clean needles and syringes saves lives, and doesn’t increase drug use. They weren’t going to let fear of needles and syringes get in the way of what medical and scientific literature says about saving lives.”
She said only two states — New Jersey and Delaware — still require prescriptions for the purchase of needles and syringes.
The IRRC is a governmental body that helps ensure that new rules and regulations in Pennsylvania are in the public’s interest. It has review authority over about 120 state boards, commissions and agencies.
The IRRC commissioners took into account several letters, public comments and internal staff analyses prior to voting on the new regulation, said Kim Kaufman, executive director of the IRRC.
Pennsylvania has two needle-exchange programs — one in Pittsburgh and one in Philadelphia.
But Goldfein said some injection-drug users end up sharing needles because they cannot or will not utilize those programs.
Sharing dirty needles can contribute to the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other diseases, she added.
“I absolutely think this new regulation will end up being cost-effective because it will prevent people from getting HIV,” Goldfein said. “There’s no greater cost-savings than preventing illness.”
She said the state Board of Pharmacy finalized the new rule in April 2009. However, it still must undergo a legal review by state Attorney General Tom Corbett — and be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin — before it has the force of law.
“We’re hopeful that Attorney General Corbett will review the regulation and find that it has been appropriately and correctly drafted,” Goldfein said. “I’m optimistic his office will move forward expeditiously. Because this matter will have a positive impact on public health, I’m hopeful it won’t be unnecessarily delayed.”
Nils Frederiksen, a spokesperson for Corbett, couldn’t predict when Corbett’s review of the new rule would be completed.
“I can’t give you a time frame for the review of this particular rule,” Frederiksen told PGN. “Our office works to review all new rules and regulations as quickly as possible.”
Some Pennsylvanians oppose the new rule, believing it will increase drug addiction in the state. But Robert E. Field, co-chair of Common Sense for Drug Policy, based in Lancaster, refuted that concern.
“Studies indicate that making syringes available will reduce the spread of HIV and will not lead to an increase of illicit drug use,” Field told PGN.
State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-182nd Dist.) praised the IRRC’s vote.
“I think it’s a good step toward good health for everybody,” she said. “And I’m happy to see it happen. We now need to move on to other measures to make sure the world is safe from HIV and other scourges.”
Josephs wasn’t discouraged that activists pushed more than five years for the new rule.
“Everything takes a long time, unfortunately. It’s too bad sometimes. However, when government is contemplating something you think is extremely unwise, you’re happy it takes a long time for government to act. Let’s celebrate the positive aspects of this vote.”
by Timothy Cwiek
August 7, 2009