CONCORD, N.H. >> State and local law enforcement officials spoke out Tuesday against part of a bill aimed at making it easier for drug addicts to exchange dirty needles for clean ones, but they oppose the measure for different reasons.
Under current law, hypodermic needles and syringes can be dispensed only by pharmacists, and possessing a used syringe with heroin residue on it is a felony. But a bill before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee would legalize residual amounts of heroin on used syringes and would allow nonprofit and community groups to create needle exchange programs.
Sandwich Police Chief Douglas Wyman told lawmakers he supports exchange programs but opposes removing the penalties for possessing residual amounts of heroin because arrests under those circumstances can be a tool to get someone help. Someone prosecuted for that kind of possession likely would be a candidate for alternate sentencing, such as mandated drug abuse counseling, he said.
"At certain times, this would be one of the ways, if not the only way, to get a person into treatment," he said.
Senior Assistant Attorney General James Vera also raised concerns about the penalty portion of the bill, though his office isn't taking a position on the overall proposal. He said defining what constitutes a "residual" amount would be problematic. And, he said, by legalizing residual amounts of heroin on needles, law enforcement would no longer be allowed to consider such needles as drug paraphernalia when applying for search warrants.
Some members of the committee pushed back against those arguments, arguing that the current law has not helped prevent the state's opioid crisis. The state recorded 414 fatal overdoses last year, up from 326 in 2014 and 192 the year before.
Rep. Joseph Hannon, the bill's sponsor, said the bill would help prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis C and AIDS and would increase the opportunities for addicts to get help because organizations running needle exchange programs can also direct them to community resources. He said setting up a program in one city would cost about $150,000 — about what it would cost for one year of treatment for hepatitis C.
"I've not met anybody against this in the health care field or recovery field," said Hannon, a Republican from Lee. "It's a no-brainer."