Elizabeth Venable of Shot in the Dark (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Venable)

Q&A: From Underground to into the Spotlight

Arizona HB2389 would legalize the important work that Shot in the Dark and other syringe access programs do for injection-drug users…with a catch.

Both the House and Senate recommended a conference committee on April 3 where legislators from both chambers will try and work out their differences.

After the original version, sponsored by Rep. Tony Rivero (R-Peoria) passed 56–0 in the House of Representatives in February, but the Senate Government Committee included an amendment to the original bill, which in effect would only declare programs like Shot in the Dark legal if a public health emergency is declared.

Shot in the Dark has been operating underground for years, but this bill will hopefully allow them to cast a wider-net and help curb the Arizona’s opioid epidemic, declared a statewide health emergency by Gov. Doug Ducey last June.

Shot in the Dark gives people naloxone, a medication that is designed to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, in a kit that can save lives. Other ways the organization attempts to perform “harm reduction” include educational training and community outreach and syringe disposal and treatment referrals, according to their website.

The Arizona Department of Health Services began tracking suspected opioid deaths, suspected opioid overdoes, neonatal abstinence syndrome, naloxone does dispensed and naloxone doses administered in real time on their website on June 15.

I talked with Elizabeth Venable of with Shot in the Dark about the potential effects of HB2389.

Q: Right now under state law anybody that distributes needles is subject to a Class 6 Felony. What would it mean for SITD as an organization to be legal in Arizona?

A: It would mean protection for not only the volunteers, but also for people to dispose of syringes that they are carrying that have our information on them. It would be a total benefit for our operations. We could have more volunteers because people would not have to worry about legal issues and the participants would be able to dispose of the needles without worrying.

Q: What effect would the bill have for injection-drug users?

A: There will be greater access to syringes, which means there will be fewer cases of Hepatitis C, which is almost entirely transmitted through injection drug use and also fewer cases of HIV. And it will also mean fewer injuries, such as abstinence's.

FIND THE REST OF THE SERIES:

Part Two: Shot in the Dark clients thankful for easy access

Part Three: What you need to know about the latest data

Q: What effect would the bill have for law enforcement personal if your organization becomes a legal entity in the eyes of the law?

A: As far as law enforcement, they have a understanding with us. That is not a direct concern. It is policing the drug, not policing us. But, obviously we want our law enforcement to be safe. So if they are not safe because they fear law enforcement action against us or themselves, then that is not good for our program.

Q: An act of bipartisanship is a seldom occurrence at the Legislature. What do you attribute this to?

A: What I attribute it to is the public health emergency that we are experiencing. We’ve seen Hepatitis C cases skyrocket in this state, and we are looking at a tremendous increase in HIV cases. I think public officials are aware of that. I also believe they are aware with the long-term costs associated with the care of these conditions. These are chronic, lifelong conditions. You can get the $40,000/year Hepatitis C treatment, which works but it is really expensive. I think Sonoran Prevention Works did a great job in crafting the legislation.

Q: How would the amendment passed by the Senate Government Committee affect your organization’s efforts?

A: It would declare our programs only legal in the case of the public health emergency. Once a public health emergency is declared, they are only supposed to last for a year before it has to be reviewed by the locality. People should contact their representatives in support of the bill but not the amendment.

We are not going out giving out drugs and we’re not promoting drugs. We are giving clean medical supplies to people.

Q: Critics, namely Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, argue that programs such as SITD just faciliate drug use and do little to address drug addiction. What would you say to that?

A: Studies have shown that they don’t increase drug use. We are not going out selling drugs, we are not going out giving out drugs and we’re not promoting drugs. We are giving clean medical supplies to people. When people choose to engage with these programs, they tend to have higher rates of getting into recovery and engaging with the service provider. It doesn’t increase the number of syringe users, it simply facilitates the help of people currently injecting and may increase their rates of recovery and access to service providers.