On May 24, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill decriminalizing syringe service programs (SSP) within the state.
The new law allows cities, towns, counties or nongovernmental organizations to establish and operate overdose and blood-borne disease prevention programs that promote “scientifically proven ways of mitigating health risks associated with drug use and other high-risk behaviors.” It also permits treatment referrals for mental illness and substance use disorder, as well as distribution of naloxone, a relatively easy-to-administer medication that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose that could previously only be legally obtained from medical providers.
Arizona is one of the last states in the US to formally authorize SSP. The 2018 Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act, which included the adoption of a “Good Samaritan” law and set limits on opioid prescriptions, did not include any provisions for SSP. This is the fourth consecutive year that such a bill has been in the legislature, and it passed through with a bipartisan supermajority. It was co-sponsored by two Republican state senators, T.J. Shope and Nancy Barto—the latter of whom was initially opposed, but persuaded otherwise by the prospect of state savings on health care costs.
“It opens up the possibility for funding,” Haley Coles, the executive director of Sonoran Prevention Works (SPW), a group that helped usher through the legislation, told Filter. “If cities and counties wanted to fund it now, they can. And even private funders have been hesitant to support because of the legal status. Of course, it also provides protections to participants.”
“In the past, we couldn’t get social workers and nurses to come out and volunteer because their licenses were at risk.”
“We have the possibility, where we didn’t have it before. This is that foundational stepping stone.”
Coles believes that the rise in fatal overdose during the pandemic helped to make the case that policy measures taken up until now weren’t enough. Research has also shown that people who access SSP become more likely to seek treatment for substance use disorder. There were more than 81,000 recorded US overdose fatalities in the 12 months ending in May 2020—already a record death toll, and one that will likely soon be surpassed.
Less than a week earlier, Ducey had signed another bill into law that legalized drug-checking products like fentanyl test strips. Democratic State Senator Christine Marsh had led the charge on that legislation after her son died from a fentanyl overdose.
Underground SSP have served Arizona drug users for years. SPW has operated one in Kingman, about 100 miles southeast of Las Vegas, since 2018, with the support of the community. But operating without authorization, they hadn’t been able to expand much beyond the immediate area. Coles describes the program as a model for authorized SSP and has hopes of replicating it elsewhere in the state.
“There was no comprehensive, systematic way to reach people who inject drugs or who are at risk for overdose,” Coles said. “We have the possibility, where we didn’t have it before. This is that foundational stepping stone.”
“It’s not like everything is now going to magically be fixed,” Coles added. “It’ll take a lot more than that.”