The state legislative session is over and the fate of a bill that would allow the expansion of needle exchanges throughout Florida is now up to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The Infectious Disease Elimination Programs bill creates a legal mechanism for counties to authorize programs that swap clean syringes for dirty ones. Needle exchanges have been shown to reduce the spread of blood borne infections—like HIV and hepatitis C—among injection drug users.
The bill passed 111-3 in the Florida House and unanimously in the Florida Senate.
"And that's because the numbers don't lie," said Democratic state senator Oscar Braynon, the senate sponsor of the bill. "We are actually stopping the spread of HIV. We're actually reducing the overdoses. We are saving the state and saving the county money."
The bill was modeled on the IDEA Exchange in Miami-Dade County, which was given a five-year trial approval by the legislature in 2016. In the three years it's been around, the IDEA Exchange has reported to the health department that it's pulled more than a quarter million used needles out of circulation. It hands out Narcan (the drug that reverses opioid overdoses)—and, according to the exchange, making this drug available has prevented more than a thousand overdoses. The program also offers testing for HIV and hepatitis C, and it connects people to medical care and drug rehab.
"We have to help the new programs get started," said Dr. Hansel Tookes, who has been pushing for this legislation since he was a medical student at the University of Miami. Now he's an assistant professor of medicine at UM and head of the IDEA Exchange.
"We have a few-year head start on [other counties]," said Tookes. "We'll host them down here, we'll help them learn about ways to get funding, ways to partner with the county and the health departments."
Historically, the distribution of needles without prescriptions violated drug paraphernalia possession laws as interpreted in Florida—the Infectious Disease Elimination Programs bill creates clear guidelines for doing so legally as a public health intervention. After some negotiation between the Florida House and Senate, the bill prohibits the use of state or municipal funds for needle exchange. Miami's pilot project, the IDEA Exchange, relies on private funding and the support of the University of Miami.
Tookes had been traveling between Miami and Tallahassee to support the bill this session. After witnessing the final vote, he spent the return flight to Miami looking out the window:
"I looked down at Florida the entire ride and I just had this overwhelming feeling like, 'Oh my God we just did the impossible and we're gonna save so many people in this state.'"