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Lawmakers Question Specifics of Legalizing Needle Exchange in N.H.

Paige Sutherland/NHPR
Last year more than 540 dirty syringes were collected in Manchester alone.

Lawmakers were evenly split Tuesday on whether or not the House should support the legalization of needle exchange programs in New Hampshire.

After a 7 to 7 vote, the bill now heads to the full House next week without recommendation from the Criminal Justice Committee. Last month the Health and Human Services Committee unanimously backed the measure.  

The deadlocked vote came after more than two and a half hours of public testimony and nearly an hour of debate.

The main concern was whether a needle containing heroin residue should be legalized as part of the legislation.

The lead sponsor of the bill, along with a handful of others, testified Tuesday that without this measure, addicts would be too paranoid to turn in dirty needles. Under current law, those found with a dirty syringe could face up to seven years behind bars.

Click here to see the number of dirty syringes picked up in Manchester last year.

But Sandwich Police Chief Douglas Wyman, who supports needle exchanges, argued decriminalizing heroin residue removes an important law enforcement tool.

“In an arrest type of situation or in an enforcement action in which that – even though its only a residual amount – that might be the catalyst to getting a person into treatment, (with the) lack of them wanting to do it on their own,” Wyman said. 

The Attorney General's Office also testified that scratching this penalty could prevent officers from arresting potential drug dealers by removing probable cause in certain situations.

But those in favor of needle exchanges argue the programs' pros outweigh the cons by preventing the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, and linking addicts to treatment.

Tym Rourke, who chairs the Governor's Commission on Alcohol and Drugs, told the committee he understands the debate over granting this immunity. But he argued that if the state doesn't act now, the consequences will be much greater. He referred to Austin, Ind., where a heroin crisis led to an HIV outbreak of more than 153 patients last year. 

"We are one patient away from being that rural town in Indiana - all it takes is one. And I think we don't have a lot of time before that story comes here," Rourke said.

An estimated 430 people died from a drug overdose in New Hampshire in 2015, with at least 10 overdose deaths this year and 86 cases pending toxicology reports. 

So far, 36 states have legalized needle exchange programs. New Hampshire is the only state in New England yet to do so.  

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