In a decision packed with soaring language, a Superior Court judge has ruled that a clean needle distribution program in Hyannis saves lives and appears to be operating legally.
Judge Raymond P. Veary Jr. issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday that prevents Barnstable officials from shutting down the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod’s needle distribution program, which is intended to combat the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.
The town this fall had tried to shutter the six-year-old program, saying it was illegal and citing the public health danger of dirty needles left around town by intravenous drug users, which officials say pose a risk for accidental needle sticks and infections.
Veary heard two days of testimony in the case last month. Though the judge acknowledged Barnstable’s “understandable concern” about carelessly discarded syringes, his 13-page decision says that shutting down the program “would quite clearly place lives in jeopardy.”
“These aren’t just any people,” he wrote, referring to intravenous drug addicts. “They are extremely vulnerable people. They are men and women, young and old, people from all places and from all stations.
“They are our brothers and our sisters. They are driven by a disease that has taken away their choices and left them with a need. To fill this need they require needles and syringes.”
The support group’s program “may not be the perfect approach,” the judge wrote, but the evidence suggests “it is an effective approach. It saves lives.”
Veary also ordered the two sides to meet face-to-face every month to discuss ways to reduce the number of improperly discarded needles, among other issues.
Andrew Musgrave, senior director of legal services for the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, which provided legal representation to the Cape Cod group, said the judge “clearly sees the risks that the people of Barnstable County are facing, and the positive impact that the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod is having . . . He really gets it.”
Veary served 24 years in the Bristol district attorney’s office, before then-governor Deval Patrick appointed him to the bench in 2010, according to a profile of the judge compiled by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.
The publication noted that in his judicial application, “Veary described providing volunteer legal services to AIDS patients and indigent individuals.”
Musgrave said officials from the support group and from the town could productively work together to address discarded needles, “if they can view each other as allies.”
Charles McLaughlin, assistant town attorney for Barnstable, said the town is unlikely to appeal at this time, and that he hopes the two sides can make progress through face-to-face discussions, as the judge required.
“We’re all ears,” he said. “As important as the mission is they’re supporting, we really need to get aggressive and figure out how to address the risk to the public” posed by discarded needles.
The legal dispute dates to September, when the town issued cease-and-desist letters to the AIDS Support Group, arguing that under state law the Massachusetts Department of Health establishes rules for needle exchange pilot programs, and that the programs need local approval before the exchanges may begin. Barnstable claimed the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod never received local approval from the Town Council for its program, based at 428 South St., in Hyannis, a village of Barnstable.
McLaughlin has said town officials were unaware until recently of the needle program, which the support group says has been operating since 2009.
The support group filed suit against Barnstable in November, insisting that state lawmakers largely repealed restrictions on hypodermic needles in 2006, in an effort to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.
Veary agreed: “The amendment [approved by state lawmakers] clearly marked a change in the Legislature’s approach to intravenous drug users: a shift away from criminal enforcement and toward the promotion of health,” he wrote in his decision. “This change appears to be entirely consistent with the stated goals and demonstrated activities of [the support group’s] program.”
“The statute certainly does not express a prohibition against such programs, and this court is disinclined to infer one,” Veary wrote.
The AIDS Support Group, according to court documents, has voluntarily instituted new policies to address town concerns about discarded syringes. These include renewed emphasis on educating clients on the safe disposal of used needles, a promise that its staff will conduct weekday sweeps of abutting properties to collect discarded syringes, and an offer to pay for needle discard receptacles in town-run bathrooms, among other measures.