Massachusetts: Supreme Judicial Court OKs Programs' Needles

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Friday that people who receive clean syringes through a state-sanctioned needle exchange program in one community cannot be arrested for carrying them in another. The SJC decided the case involving Maria Landry, a member of Cambridge's needle exchange program who was charged last year with carrying illegal drug paraphernalia -- the needles -- in Lynn.

The justices "understood the public health values that were at stake here," said Sarah Wunsch, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts lawyer who represented Landry.

A 1993 law allows communities to host pilot needle exchange programs run by the state Department of Public Health. Four cities -- Boston, Cambridge, Northampton and Provincetown -- sponsor exchange programs that served 3,000 people in the past year, according to Dr. Howard Koh, state public health commissioner.

Needle exchange supporters say clean needles can prevent the spread of deadly bloodborne diseases like hepatitis C and HIV. Jean McGuire, director of the MDPH's AIDS/HIV bureau, said 60 percent of the state's hepatitis C cases and 42 percent of HIV/AIDS cases are related to intravenous drug use.

SJC Justice Judith Cowin wrote that the needles are still part of the state-sanctioned program even if participants carry them across municipal boundaries. SJC also ruled that police officers may not arrest people for hypodermic possession if they carry a needle exchange card, unless they suspect the card is fraudulent. Lynn city lawyers had argued that even if SJC ruled for Landry, police officers should still be able to arrest card-carrying needle exchange participants like her because they would be able to argue they were program participants in court as a defense.

Lynn does not offer needle exchange, and city officials argue that as they fight a heroin epidemic, they should not be bound by the decisions of other communities. James Lamanna, the lawyer who argued Lynn's case, said that local officials were disappointed by the decision and may lobby the Legislature to restrict the needle exchange law.

Back to other CDC news for December 9, 2002

Previous Updates