This past spring, a Baltimore resident was arrested and jailed in Anne Arundel County for attempting to bring items considered drug paraphernalia to a loved one.
He did it because he had easier access to sterile supplies. He was just trying to help his loved one, a registered participant in a state-authorized syringe service program – otherwise known as a needle exchange.
These programs treat drug use not as a crime, but as a public health issue. (Complications related to HIV, Hepatitis-C, skin infections, and other serious medical conditions are all associated with lack of access to sterile drug use supplies.)
The man was trying to help his partner achieve greater safety.
Now the couple’s lives have been turned upside down in multiple ways, including jail time – risking exposure to Covid – and now less access to those life-saving supplies.
But here’s the twist: Only days after he was arrested, Maryland legislators were debating a remedy – a bill to decriminalize possession of hypodermic syringe needles and other items used to administer drugs.
Eventually the Maryland General Assembly passed Senate Bill 420, an important step towards dismantling the disastrous, decades-long drug war, as the bill’s sponsor, Senator Jill Carter, explained, addressing her colleagues.
Just over a month later, however, Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the bill.
My message now: We must hold our lawmakers responsible for overriding this veto when they meet again in December.
At a time when Baltimore’s overdose rate is among the highest in the nation, it is clear that we need to use every tool in the prevention toolbox, including decriminalization.
SB 420 was the only bill passed in Annapolis this year with the potential to significantly curb the overdose epidemic.
And it is consistent with a harm reduction policy path that the state, ostensibly, is already on.
Harm reduction organizations have been authorized to hand out syringe needles (similar to insulin syringes). Pharmacies are able to distribute them in counties without syringe service programs.
Even so, registered facilitators from these programs receive citations and harassment from law enforcement, according to written testimony submitted on behalf of the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition. This legislation would help to minimize that.
It would also protect the Baltimoreans and Black Marylanders who are disproportionately impacted by this situation.
According to district court data, 44% of Maryland residents arrested for possession of paraphernalia from 2013 to 2018 were Black, although Black people comprise 30% of the state’s population.
A Drug War Governor
One particularly galling part of the Governor’s May 26 veto was that, in announcing it, he referred to himself as a “champion” on overdose issues.
Yes, in 2016 Hogan signed legislation to expand syringe services across Maryland (formally known in as “opioid-associated disease prevention and outreach programs.”)
But this legislation was the result of tireless work by harm reduction advocates who lobbied allies within government offices and over time earned their support.
Yes, in 2017 Hogan declared the “opioid crisis” a State of Emergency. But emergencies require immediate, even unconventional and uncomfortable steps.
Our Governor instead has chosen to thwart meaningful progress on this issue and maintain the status quo.
As a leading advocate for overdose prevention policy in Maryland for a decade, we at Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition can assuredly say that community-based organizers are the true champions working to curb our overdose rate.
Over the years, we all have had to fight tooth and nail to get the Hogan Administration to expand overdose education, naloxone distribution and syringe services.
When it comes to real action, it seems Hogan is more interested in fighting the discredited “War on Drugs” than joining the battle against disease and overdose.
In vetoing SB 420, the Governor falsely claimed that it “does nothing . . . to reduce opioid-related fatalities . . . or help individuals seek or receive substance-use treatment.”
We invite all elected officials, residents, and advocates to visit the Maryland General Assembly website to watch, listen, and read testimony about the health and social benefits of decriminalizing paraphernalia.
• SB 20 hearing. (Starts at 3:35)
• HB 372 hearing (Starts at 1:54)
Witnesses summarized decades of academic research on the effects of decriminalizing drug paraphernalia. Experts shared that improving access to supplies does not increase improperly discarded syringe needles, rates of drug use or other criminalized activity.
In fact, myriad sources – academic researchers, peer outreach workers, medical professionals, people who use drugs – testified that reducing fear of carceral punishment increases the likelihood someone will feel safe accessing life-saving treatment.
Reducing fear of carceral punishment increases the likelihood someone will feel safe accessing life-saving treatment.
Hogan also claimed the bill would “permit drug dealers to stockpile large quantities of paraphernalia, such as needles and syringes, and sell it to vulnerable individuals suffering from addiction.”
The truth is, harm reduction programs have been providing hygienic drug use supplies across the state for years – at no cost. There is no profit to be made now, let alone when these supplies are more widely available and decriminalized.
A Bold Step
The time is now to reduce our reliance on the criminal justice system to address public health and social justice issues. This year, Maryland’s General Assembly boldly took a major step to intervene in the ongoing overdose crisis.
They approved a measure that will encourage people to enroll in syringe services programs and other services that will mitigate harm and increase recovery.
In short, it will save lives. Let’s make sure it becomes law.
– Rajani Gudlavalleti is director of mobilization with Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org