Massachusetts law allows anyone to distribute syringes without approval by local authorities, the state’s highest court ruled Wednesday in a case involving a Hyannis needle exchange.
The ruling was hailed by advocates for the eight-year-old Hyannis program, who said the decision would lead to the expansion statewide of a service that saves lives and prevents the spread of disease among injection-drug users — at time when Massachusetts is battling an opioid-addiction crisis.
“This is a victory for public health,” said Bennett Klein of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, one of the lawyers representing the Hyannis needle exchange. “This means the difference between life and death for people struggling with addiction.”
But the Town of Barnstable, which encompasses Hyannis, said in a statement that the court ruling supports an “absurd” system that allows “unfettered distribution of very dangerous hypodermic needles.”
In an interview, Charles McLaughlin, Barnstable’s assistant town attorney, didn’t dispute the value of needle exchanges but questioned whether, in laws passed over the years, the Legislature intended to sanction unregulated needle distribution.
“The Legislature really needs to take a look at this issue,” he said. “I don’t think this case is remotely as clear as the court the made out to be.”
Providing clean needles to people who inject drugs discourages them from sharing needles and thus from spreading blood-borne illnesses such as HIV and hepatitis C. People who visit agencies that provide syringes typically can also obtain health services and referrals to addiction treatment.
Massachusetts has allowed state-sponsored needle exchanges since 1993, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, but each was required to obtain approval from local authorities. A special exception was needed for those programs because at the time it was a crime to possess a syringe without a prescription.
In 2006, the legislature legalized the possession and distribution of syringes.
The Supreme Judicial Court case arose from the decision by the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod to open a syringe exchange in Hyannis. Because the 2006 law had legalized syringes, the group did not seek local approval.
In late 2015, the town — insisting that local approval was still needed — shut down the Hyannis needle exchange, but a judge ordered it reopened while litigation proceeded.
In its brief to the SJC, the town argued that the Legislature intended to allow people to obtain syringes by only two routes: buying them from a pharmacy, or obtaining them from a state-sponsored syringe program.
But the high court, in a unanimous ruling, agreed with the AIDS Support Group that the 2006 law removed all restrictions on needle distribution.
Klein, the lawyer for the AIDS Support Group, said the effects of the decision will extend beyond Hyannis: It lifts the fear of prosecution from people who were looking for additional ways to get needles into the hands of addicts, such as social workers who want to supply them to clients or an agency considering running a van.
The decision leaves in place the state needle-exchange program — and the requirement that those programs obtain approval from the local Board of Health.
McLaughlin, the Barnstable lawyer, said there is an “inherent inconsistency” between requiring local approval for state-sponsored needle exchanges, while allowing programs sponsored by anyone else to open without oversight or regulation.
McLaughlin spoke highly of the existing needle exchange programs, including the one in Hyannis. “No one disputes the good these programs are doing,” he said.
But the court’s ruling, he said, means that a pharmacist could lose his or her license for selling a syringe to someone younger than 18, while a drug dealer could stand outside the pharmacy handing out needles to children with impunity.
Klein called that argument a “red herring.”
“People generally do not go to a pharmacy, buy needles, and then just hand them out to random people for no reason,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It is a non-issue and a non-problem. If it were an identifiable problem, the legislature could fix it, but it has no bearing in current reality.”
Joe Carleo, chief executive officer of the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, said that the agency plans to “continue doing what we do” — providing an array of social services as well as distributing needles to more than 500 clients a year. The group does not have “a firm game plan on opening any other type of program” as a result of the ruling, he said.
Despite the litigation, both McLaughlin and Carleo said the town and agency have a good relationship, and have worked together to reduce the number of discarded needles in public parks, the issue that initially prompted the town to seek to shut down the agency.