A funny thing happened on the way home from the needle syringe program…
“I saved some taxpayer dollars, potentially saved a life and got arrested. You see I had just left my local needle syringe program with a fresh bag of sterile injecting equipment just on closing time when I ran into Janine. She had just scored but had no kit. With no sterile injecting equipment and the onset of withdrawal symptoms Janine was starting to get desperate. Being a helpful sort I gave her one of my five sterile syringes, just before the police swept in and busted us on the street. I thought I was sweet, I wasn’t holding any gear. Unfortunately the busted me for secondary supply of injecting equipment…”
While the above story is a fiction and has never happened to me or anybody I know, it is completely plausible. You see each State and Territory in Australia maintains laws that prohibit the secondary supply of injecting equipment (i.e. supply of injecting equipment by someone other than an approved health professional or organisation such as an authorised needle syringe program).
This legal obstacle remains in place despite the evidence that demonstrates that the provision of sterile injecting equipment not only saves tax payer dollars through the prevention of potential transmission of blood borne viruses such as HIV, but more importantly results in a reduction of lives lost.
Research conducted by The National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, University of New South Wales (2009) found that the provision of needle syringe programs in Australia between 2000 – 2009 had:
- Directly averted 32,050 new HIV infections
- Directly averted 96,667 new Hepatitis C infections
- Resulted in reduced patient costs and increased productivity gains returning $27 in saved costs for every dollar spent on needle syringe programs
Given the obvious advantages that Needle Syringe Programs offer not only to people who inject drugs, but also the broader community, why retain laws that only serve to hamper the distribution of sterile injecting equipment?
AIVL (2010) captures most concisely the arguments that prevent the removal of these legal impediments:
The most often used argument against the support of peer distribution is that peers will sell the equipment ‘on the side’. Some service providers are concerned that sterile equipment will be on-sold by dealers for profit.
As AIVL further asserts however, such considerations, must surely be considered secondary to the benefits that such free access to sterile injecting equipment poses.
Okay so maybe it wasn’t such a funny story. A state that values its citizen’s health, permits self determination enabling such citizens to save a life, save some tax payer dollars and to not get arrested for doing so. Unfortunately this is not currently the case in Australia.
For a more in depth examination of the obstacles that hamper access to sterile injecting equipment I can highly recommend the excellent resource: Legislative and Policy Barriers to Needle & Syringe Programs and Injecting Equipment Access for People Who Inject Drugs Australian Injecting produced by the fine folks at AIVL.
Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (2010) Legislative and Policy Barriers to Needle & Syringe Programs and Injecting Equipment Access for People Who Inject Drugs Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League, Canberra
National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research. (2009) Return on investment 2: evaluating the cost-effectiveness of needle and syringe programs in Australia. Canberra:
Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing